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Chapter Sixty-One

Expecting the empty, sun-blasted dazzle of his own rocky desert arena, Michael was surprised to see instead the familiar darkened surroundings of the Crashdown after hours.

Seen through Maria’s eyes, the place had a quality of nightmarish unreality, it’s proportions and layout unsettlingly different to the room he knew so well. Lit only by the dim security lights, it was hard to see the others clearly, each sitting in one of the booths half-hidden in the deep shadows.
A faint, luminous circle on the floor connected the four occupied booths and from them lines led across a wide space to a small pool of harsh light in the center where Liz crouched, her face buried in her arms.

As Michael felt Maria’s sudden surge of love and hope for Liz, his viewpoint changed and he was no longer looking through her eyes, but watching as an observer while she impulsively rushed forward to kneel beside her stricken friend.

Somewhere in the back of his mind he remembered that he was still holding his own stone – maybe that had drawn him into the ritual in his own right after all. He was aware of his outer senses still on guard, but his inner vision was now holding his attention.

In the pool of light Maria reached a hand towards Liz but, without even looking up, Liz pushed her violently away, shaking her head and then hugging herself tighter again in a paroxysm of apparent anger or grief. Determined to get through to her friend, Maria wouldn’t give up and kept on trying even when Liz began to strike out at her. Finally, she managed to wrestle Liz into their old comfort-giving position – the smaller girl curled on her side with her head in Maria’s lap while the small blonde stroked her long dark hair soothingly. They stayed like that for a long time, with no further response from Liz until eventually, sadly, Maria reluctantly withdrew to Michael, who rested his hand comfortingly on her shoulder while they both watched Kyle move forward to take his turn.

The Buddhist ex-jock had been briefly surprised to see the Crashdown but a moment’s reflection had shown him that it was the natural place for Liz to retreat to when she was feeling hurt or threatened – it was home and safety to her.
He saw how distressed she was and tried to send calming vibes, moving slowly as he approached her. Crouched like some small, hurt animal defending itself from an enemy, she lashed out viciously again as she sensed his approach but he was ready and caught her wrist as her fist swung wildly in his direction.

Surprised, Liz looked up and he took an involuntary step back in shock.

For a horrified moment he thought her face was melting, but then he realized that it was a kaleidoscope of different expressions: snarling hate, jealousy, pain and spite were fighting fierce love and gentle sweetness and clearly winning the battle for domination. Through it all were glimpses of fear, panic and despair.

He was shaken to the core – this was a Liz he had never seen before, revealing aspects of her personality that he had never dreamed existed. He reached out to try to take her into a comforting hug, but she roughly rebuffed him too, just like she had Maria. Feeling helpless and frustrated, Kyle reluctantly retreated for the moment to make way for the next one in the circle – for Isobel.

The alien girl left her seat at the booth and walked forward into the light to stand staring down at Liz with a frown on her beautiful face.

Isobel had felt a mixture of shock and pity on first seeing Liz so distraught. Despite the anger she still felt about Liz turning against Maria, she sincerely wanted to help the girl. Even if they weren’t close friends, probably never would be, they were family now, meant to be there for each other in good times and bad. This was a very bad time and Isobel wouldn’t hold back. However, on seeing Maria’s loving attempts to reach her friend rejected, Isobel’s positive attitude had wavered but then, at the sight of Liz’s tormented face, she softened again and wished hard for her to come back to them.

Reaching down, she grabbed the smaller girl’s wrist and hauled her to her feet, lingering anger making the action less than gentle. Liz fought at first, twisting frantically in the ruthless grip, but finally she stood upright, wide, dark eyes blank: all her attention turned in on herself and the maelstrom of feelings raging inside her.

Isobel, still grasping her wrist, paused and looked at her thoughtfully for a moment but Liz showed no sign of recognition, frozen to the spot with the eerie procession of conflicting expressions still crossing her face, and finally the alien girl also retreated back to the shadows, like her friends before her uncertain of what to do next to shake the girl back into reality.

While Michael’s attention was focused on Maria, ready to add his strength to hers if she needed it, he nevertheless watched with detachment as she, Kyle and Isobel all turned to Max, waiting to see what he would do. That he was the catalyst, the cause of Liz’s mental breakdown, they all knew, just as they hoped that he might be the one who had the key to her recovery.

Max himself was staring in shock at his ‘soulmate’, stunned to see her like this. He realized that although his attachment to Tess was genuine in both his alien and human lives, it paled like the moon before the sun of his feelings for Liz. Flooded with guilt that he had brought her to this extremity, he found with despair that his mind was frozen into his familiar inability to take action. What if his energy – already weakened by his son – wasn’t enough to heal her? What if, in healing Liz, he drained it all and had none left to save his son?

Trapped in the balance by his dilemma, making the choice between them was just too hard. He just couldn’t decide what to do and he put his head helplessly in his hands, overcome with despair.

Seeing this, recognising his characteristic ‘do nothing’ attitude of old, Maria was incensed again. If Max couldn’t or wouldn’t for whatever reasons help the girl he had claimed was his ‘everything’ and yet had betrayed in the most intimate ways, then she, as her oldest friend, must be the one to act.
The group needed each other and for that to happen Liz had to regain her emotional balance.

Stepping out into the light, she walked up to Liz and took the tortured face gently between her hands, staring into the blank eyes, trying desperately to catch some glimmer of recognition. There was no response. Feeling that there was no alternative left, hoping that shock tactics might break the girl out of her mental prison, Maria stood back and deliberately slapped her face hard.

Liz’s eyes snapped into awareness and her face froze into an expression of uncertainty. She looked at Maria warily, and when the blonde girl reached out a hand, she flinched and took a step back.

Giving up for the moment, Maria retreated back to Michael in the shadows of her booth to see what Liz would do next.
At first she blinked in confusion, as if she was waking up from some disturbing dream and couldn’t immediately return to reality. Then she looked down at her own body, sliding her hands lightly across her breasts, stomach and hips as if to reassure herself that she was real. Only then did she raise her head cautiously and notice her surroundings. Her expression changed to one of relief and happiness as if she really had woken up from a nightmare to find herself safely at home in the Crashdown.

Looking into the shadows, Liz frowned; something about it wasn’t right...

The watchers could follow the return of her memories as the expression on her face mingled love and hate and despair again as her glance drifted around the room before smoothing out to blank indifference as she watched Max stand up eagerly and hurry towards her.

When they were a few inches apart, their soulmate gazes locked with the same intensity as in all their encounters and he paused to catch his breath in grateful relief at having her back again. Just as he leaned in for a kiss, she held up a hand to stop him coming any nearer, her eyes suddenly burning with something he couldn’t identify – then her distracted gaze shifted to one side and her expression changed to something else again, something indefinable that unnerved him, as she stared over his shoulder.

As he turned, curious, to follow her glance Liz brushed past him and went over to Kyle who stood up and opened his arms to let her walk into his hug. When he finally let her go she moved on to Isobel, still sitting in her booth watching her with an odd intensity.

Neither girl offered a hug, but they shared a genuine smile and Isobel accepted Liz’s silent thanks with a cool nod.
Max, left standing helplessly in the center of the circle, brightened as she turned back towards him, but Liz gave him a long, enigmatic look and passed him without breaking stride, heading across to where Maria sat with Michael looming protectively in the shadows behind her.

Liz approached them smiling nervously, her eyes filled with tears, and held out her arms to Maria, pleading for a hug and mouthing ‘I’m so sorry’ into the eerie silence that had enclosed them all since the ritual began.

Maria unexpectedly hesitated, feeling an echo of Michael’s open dislike and distrust in her own mind, knowing with sadness and regret that her feelings could never be the same as they once were after all that had passed between them; but then her need to have her own Lizzie back overwhelmed her and she leaped up to pull her friend into her arms and they clung together unsteadily until the Crashdown itself seemed to spin around them.

Michael had watched as the scene imprinted itself on his memory: Isobel and Kyle sitting in the shadows, still engrossed in the drama, their expressions displaying relief and desperate hope that all would be well; Max still in the pool of light, his expression of guilt, pain and confusion as he gazed longingly at Liz gradually changing into calmness and determination as if he, too, might be undergoing some personal revelation in the alien ritual.

Then the scene was abruptly forgotten as all Michael’s outer senses suddenly flared into red alert, warning him of trouble back in the real world.

The two small girls continued to hug each other tearfully until Maria struggled away from Liz and stepped back. The Crashdown continued to reel around her and she felt that something was wrong. Looking round for Michael, as their mindlink suddenly narrowed to the basic connection they never lost even when their attention was elsewhere, she discovered he was no longer there and she started to panic.
Kyle and Isobel were also startled and apprehensive as the Crashdown began to break up, jagged shards of familiar scenery whirling away into infinity to reveal Tess’s candlelit dining room.

Sounds burst upon their eardrums with painful loudness, after the silence of the ritual plane. There were urgent voices outside in the hallway as a thunderous knocking sounded on the door. Michael had his hand raised to emit his blue forcefield in defence against the attack from the other side, while at the same time he was hissing at the others to be quiet and to hit the floor as they stood blinking in panic and confusion, gathered around the pod that had so recently enclosed Liz.

The hard shell melted into sticky, cobwebby stands, disintegrating as Liz fought her way free of them and, ignoring Max’s eager offer, accepted Kyle’s helping hand to stand up. She leaned against him and stretched her muscles, stiff from long confinement in the pod, overcome with joy at being back in the land of the living; feeling calm inside and more like her old self again - almost normal for the first time in years.
The noise and general commotion penetrated her haze and she looked up at Kyle questioningly just as he shouted into her ear to get down on the floor.

She obeyed and from her position beneath the window listened as the sounds quickly faded down to a normal level and revealed themselves to be not so dramatically loud after all. It must have been a lingering effect of the balance ritual - the knocking was continuous and the voices urgent, but not at the almost painful volume it had seemed at first. Michael was still protecting the group from intrusion by forcing the door closed, but he had calmed down considerably and was now waiting for the others to recover their normal senses.
As soon as he had all their attention he spoke again, quietly.

“It’s Rath and Lonnie – something’s wrong. Better get up and be ready in case we need to run for it. If we do, just go for it, out the window and don’t stop to ask questions. Maria, get behind me – don’t argue. I’m gonna let them in, see what they want. Ready?”

Everyone nodded and tensed in wary attitudes – all, except Maria and Liz, raising their hands in readiness to use their forcefields for defence or attack. Maria grabbed a heavy iron candlestick and hid it behind her back. Liz stood wide-eyed and confused – she had no memory of events outside the balance ritual since she had stumbled back into her room after the fight with Maria and didn’t recognise her surroundings – but she felt the threat of danger in the air and had a strong suspicion that Tess was the cause…

Michael released the door and it burst open. A hand appeared around the edge, waving ‘hello’, followed cautiously by Rath and Lonnie, looking curiously at the remains of the pod and at Liz. Rath’s voice and expression were hard and serious, his accent less noticeable.

“Yo, dudes, we got trouble. There’s some guy knockin’ at the door askin’ politely for Tess but she ain’t nowhere around …and he won’t go away. He’s waitin’ outside in the porch – says he’s in no hurry but he’s got an important message for her. You wanna deal, bro, or shall I just off him and bury the body in the yard?”

He seemed to be serious, ignoring Max and staring questioningly at Michael, who went to take a discreet look at the man through the window giving onto the porch outside. He returned a few moments later shaking his head.

“Nobody I recognise. Looks like the businessman type. Could be anybody…but harmless or not, I’m not takin’ any chances.”

Max, sounding royally pissed off, burst out with the question that was making them all uneasy.

“Where the hell is Tess? Probably just the local Neighborhood Watch calling, they’re working for her – she should deal with this.”

“Tole ya, the Queen is awol. Her SUV’s gone, too. She ain’t been here since last night when she left your bed…”

Liz flashed a poisonous look at Max, but schooled her expression at once into blank indifference. He didn’t notice because his attention was for Tess.

“Then where did she go? Why would she go anywhere without telling me? Or you – you’re her bodyguard, for God’s sake – that’s why she keeps you around. She wouldn’t just up and leave in the middle of the night…where would she go, anyway?”

“She came to me.”

Kyle’s quiet voice was neutral, but while it surprised Liz and the two dupes, it infuriated Max in some visceral, Antarian way even as he had a vivid flash of Liz in bed with the guy. He had never been entirely convinced that it was as innocent as Liz had eventually confessed and the doubt raised its head again now, adding fuel to the fire. His jealousy was evident in his tone as he turned on the guy he had never liked or really trusted.

“You? Why the hell would she come to you? What did she want?”

Kyle stared him down, naked contempt on his face.

“She wanted to tell me she was sorry she killed Alex…”

“She went all the way across town to your bedroom to tell you that? Yeah, right – now tell the truth. You slept with her, didn’t you, you –?”

Kyle lunged at Max but Michael held him back and Rath grabbed the angry ex-king, forcibly keeping them apart.

“Max, that’s enough! Leave it, Kyle. We’ve got more important issues here, remember?”

Both antagonists breathed heavily, glaring for a long, threatening moment before shaking themselves free and pointedly ignoring the other. Both knew that there was unfinished business between them.

Michael ignored them both, turning to Rath and first briefly nodding his thanks for his double’s intervention before resuming discussion of the real problem.

“Are you sure Tess didn’t come back here after she visited Kyle? She left him before dawn – isn’t that right, Valenti?”
“Yeah, it was still dark outside.”

“Did she say where she was goin’?”

Rath continued the interrogation, a strongly pissed off note in his voice. Tess slipping away from her own bodyguards wasn’t making sense.

“No. I asked if anyone knew she had come to visit me, but she said you all thought she was asleep in her room. I assumed she’d mindwarped you.”

He couldn’t resist a sly glance at Max when he said this and was pleased to receive an angry snarl in response.

Liz stared between them, a small frown on her face, but otherwise apparently indifferent to the hostility between her former boyfriends. Isobel curbed her impatience and tried to quell the sense of impending doom that rose unbidden from the depths of her fearful mind.

Lonnie, meanwhile, had been standing in the dining room doorway, staring down the hall towards the front porch where the mysterious visitor was still sitting outside. She stared over at Michael, ignoring everyone else in the room.

“Youse gonna watch him, big boy, try to find out what he wants, yeah? We’s gonna go look for Tess – maybe her SUV’s stalled or sump’n, though she shoulda phoned... I gotta bad feelin’ about this. Where’d you see her last?”

Michael gave her the address of the motor inn and she jerked her head at Rath, telling him to follow her. Max called out to them as they left the room.

“Wait. Where you gonna get wheels? Tess has the SUV and you can’t take my van if you don’t want the guy to see you leave…”

Lonnie winked at Michael, gave Max a ‘duh, you dummy’ look and didn’t bother to answer.

The two dupes went down the hall towards the kitchen, obviously intending to slip out the back way and avoid the caller waiting on the front porch.

Max still looked puzzled and turned to the others questioningly. Isobel answered him, a slight, humorless smile on her lips. She was really glad to see him again, but he was being his sometimes slightly dense self and her irritation level rose sharply.

“Obviously they’re going to take the van, Max. They don’t care if the guy sees them leave, but they don’t want to draw any attention to themselves by stealing a car from round here while they go look for Tess.”

“What are we going to do if she doesn’t come back soon?”

Maria was thinking ahead, the practical side of her nature re-emerging from the occult-soaked influence of Amy that had been uppermost in her when she had taken part in the ritual.

“We have to try to find my son anyway. Maybe we can do it without her, now we have more energy to pool. We don’t have much time left.”

“They gotta have some time to recharge their energy, Max. They used a lot in the ritual to free Liz. It’s too risky to do it again so soon.”

“Michael, you must see –”

“I’m not gonna argue with you, Max. I’m here to protect Maria, Isobel and Kyle and that’s exactly what I’m gonna do. They will be there for your ritual when they’re ready and not before. I won’t risk any harm to them because of your selfish impatience, understand?”

Michael locked stares with Max and Max’s gaze fell first.

“Right. While we wait, we talk to this guy, see if we can find out what he wants, okay?”

The others agreed with Michael and they all filed back into the living area, finding places around the low coffee table to recover and talk about what to do next.

Maria sat on one of the couches beside Michael while Isobel went over to join Kyle on the other. Max hesitated, then Liz went over to sit on the other side of Kyle while he took the lone armchair, facing the fireplace.

There was an awkward silence for a while as Max gazed longingly at Liz and she appeared not to notice, Isobel stared at Max like he was a stranger to her and Kyle stared into space. Michael rose to pace up and down in front of the window until Maria spoke up, surprising everyone.

“Leave the guy to me – I know what to do, okay?”

Michael instantly forbade it.

“Whatever it is, Maria, no – it’s too dangerous.”

She grinned at him.

“Don’t worry, you’ll be right there with me, Spaceboy – it’s just that I’ll do the talking…”

He got a vague picture from her of what she intended to do and it didn’t seem all that risky so, once she’d explained her plan aloud, he reluctantly allowed himself to be persuaded, providing she kept behind him at all times and that the others all stayed out of sight.

She hugged him quickly and sent him a private kiss, before disappearing upstairs to the bathroom and coming down a few minutes later barefoot with her hair wet, looking like she’d just stepped out of her morning shower.

She pulled Michael’s head down to hers and kissed him, taking the opportunity to rumple his hair into that sexy just-rolled-out-of-bed look. Michael frowned disapprovingly, having had second thoughts meanwhile, but he hadn’t managed to talk her out of it so he led the way to the door with her close on his heels. The other four crowded into the archway to listen in.

When the door opened, the man outside jumped up from the bench seat in surprise, his hand automatically going inside his jacket before he could stop the movement. He was a big man in a dark gray suit, his face heavy featured and expressionless. Michael took an instant dislike to him, although that was no surprise to Maria.

The man saw a tall, messy-haired young punk staring at him in hostile irritation while a pretty blonde teenager peeked from under his raised arm, smiling in a friendly way.

“Hi, have you been waiting long? We just got up and found a note on the kitchen table saying there was someone with a message for Tess.”

She gazed at him expectantly, obviously waiting for an answer.

“Hmmm, er, yes, Miss. I have got a message for Tess. It’s very important.”

“Well, I’m sorry but she’s gone out and we don’t know when she’ll be back…she could be out shopping all day. Why don’t you give it to me and I’ll make sure that she gets it the minute she arrives home?”

She smiled innocently at the man, who stared at her consideringly. It seemed he made the decision to trust her because he reached into his jacket pocket again and pulled out an envelope.

“Just give her this and tell her that she mustn’t fail or the kid gets it…”

Then he turned on his heel, walked away down the drive and out of sight, leaving Michael and Maria staring at each other in shock.

********

Chapter Sixty-Two

Retreating quickly back inside the house, Maria ripped hastily at the envelope, evading Michael’s attempts to snatch it from her and ignoring the impatient questions of Liz and the others crowding around.

While Michael reported the man’s ominous warning, Max’s burning gaze fixed on Maria until she hastily read the note aloud.

"Tess.


We have your son.


Be outside the entrance of the Tailor Street Park at midnight.
Come alone.”


The blood drained from Max’s face leaving a ghostly pallor and he closed his eyes for a moment, fighting for control. The others watched him in shock. No matter what they felt about his behaviour, none of them – even Liz – could feel anything but sympathy for him in this.

“Oh, my God… Oh, my God, what do we do?”

It was Isobel who whispered that in panic, before her arms automatically went around her brother in a hug. He accepted her comfort for a long moment, then he gently pulled away from her and looked steadily round at them all, his eyes finally meeting those of Michael and revealing an unmistakeable plea for help.

Michael nodded at him, saying nothing but letting him know that they would put aside their disagreements for this cause. He couldn’t just leave Max to fight this one alone. Despite his hatred for her, he’d secretly been touched by Tess’s reason for drawing back from suicide when she destroyed the military base – to ensure that her son didn’t risk the cruel upbringing he himself had endured. Whatever else was going down, an innocent baby was in danger and so Michael couldn’t withhold his protection, however angry he felt at being dragged into Max’s problems yet again.

He knew without even needing to check her emotions that Maria would be totally with him on that and he unconsciously reached out to wrap his arm around her while they all stood in the entrance hall, unsure of what to do next.

They all jumped in shock when the phone in the hall rang.

They stared at it helplessly until Maria finally answered with a cautious ‘Hello?’ as she pushed the loudspeaker button so they could all hear the conversation.

“Tess, is that you, dear? It’s Eleanor Haynes…”

The voice was that of a brisk, elderly woman who was obviously expecting Tess and didn’t pause to wait for confirmation – or to take a breath.

“I’ve just come home from shopping with my daughter at the mall over in Wintervale, otherwise I would have phoned before, but you know what my Teddy’s like about using the phone. Anyway, he told me that the man who just left your house parked his car outside our property and just sat there for well over an hour before he called on you. Well, I know how worried we all are about strangers after that string of burglaries over the last few months, so I’m just letting you know that the Neighbourhood Watch has it all under control – we have the car make and number plate and Teddy has taken photographs with his zoom lens for the police records, so you and your high school friends can sleep safe, dear. Nothing gets past us, you know. Teddy says he didn’t think you were at home, but he sometimes gets a little confused, nowadays… Anyhoo, I just called to reassure you that there’s nothing to worry about, Tess, dear, we’re all keeping an eye out. It’s so nice to have you back with us for the summer. Just remember to warn us if you have a wild teenage party and try to keep the noise down. Some of the neighbors round here are so intolerant. I remember all the complaints we had when my own children were young… When your friends’ visit is over, you must come to us for dinner and catch up with all the news, so much has happened since you were home last. Well, it’s lovely talking to you, dear, but I must go – you know how crabby Ted gets when he thinks I’m gossiping on the phone too long…Bye, dear, take care and we’ll see you soon.”

There was a long, breathless silence when Maria hung up. Nobody could think of anything to follow that. Then Michael straightened his shoulders and moved back down the hall into the big kitchen. He needed coffee.

The group trailed behind him and settled themselves around the table on the wooden chairs or leaned against the counters.

Michael homed in on the espresso machine like he’d found the meaning of existence, filling the reservoir with water as Kyle searched around in the freezer for the ground coffee. Isobel raided the fridge for milk and then found the sugar while Maria set out cups. Moving instinctively, like the team they’d already become, they didn’t need to talk to know that they didn’t yet trust Max with the news of their enhanced powers.
When they were all supplied with coffee or, in Liz’s case, a glass of milk, Michael asked Max if he knew anything about Tess or the baby or any of their enemies that he hadn’t told them.

Everyone turned to stare at Max with varying degrees of sympathy – Isobel was the only one without private reservations of some kind, although nobody else admitted to doubts. They all knew, without the need to discuss it, that the old group would reconvene to fight this new attack.

“No, you know everything I know. It must be the Special Unit – they’ve found us at last.”

Max spoke quietly as he leaned against the counter, sipping his coffee, looking tense and worried. Then he raised one hand to his head and grimaced in sudden pain, even as he characteristically placed the cup carefully back on the counter so it’s contents wouldn’t spill as he began to shake. Watching him, Maria stifled a gasp with her hand over her mouth as her eyes widened.

The others echoed her shock as, before their startled gaze, his skin took on a silvery sheen and his eyes grew bigger, the whites slowly disappearing as the dark irises expanded. His large ears, always a dominant feature, seemed to shrink and flatten against his now elongated skull, while his fingers were longer and more flexible than was the norm. He looked much less human, but he was still recognisably Max Evans.

He was also Zan, ex-King of Antar, in the flesh.

He saw them staring and his new single eyebrow crinkled at them in question.

Kyle had to make a couple of attempts before he found his voice – the others were still speechless.

“Max – what’s…what’s happening to you?”

Isobel stood up abruptly and took a step towards her brother, then suddenly dropped like a stone and only Kyle’s fast reflexes caught her before she hit the floor. He picked her up and carried her into the living room, laying her gently down on the couch in the ‘recovery’ position.

Maria and Liz followed close on his heels instinctively prepared to apply first-aid techniques, forgetting in their panic the ‘alien’ healing resources available, but by then Isobel’s eyes were fluttering open and she was stirring.

Kyle was kneeling at her side, holding her hand, while Michael and Max stood back, watching the little drama anxiously and, on Maria’s orders, keeping out of the way.

Once he was sure she was going to be ok, Michael turned to Max, who was looking worried about his sister and bewildered at her reaction. Michael’s voice was gentle and uncertain, the usual abrasiveness gone as the shock gave way to horror, although his face remained impassive as he gestured towards the mirror over the fireplace.

“Take a look, Max, but be prepared for a big shock. Don’t need you taking a dive like Iz…”

Max held his gaze for a moment as some inkling of the truth began to dawn, then he swallowed hard and braced himself before he slowly moved over to see his own reflection in the mirror.

The rest of the group, including Isobel, watched in horrified fascination – all holding their breath for his reaction.
To everyone’s surprise, he took it well. After a deep breath, he turned away from the morror and faced the others.

“I guess River Dog was right – the Balance can change you… Don’t cry, Isobel, it’s nothing I need to deal with right now, we have more important things to worry about. What are we going to do about rescuing my son? If the Special Unit has him…”

His voice trembled but grew strong again, as he recalled the nightmarish memories of his own time as a captive of the Government.

Michael moved over to his side and clapped a bracing hand on his shoulder. He could see how deeply shocked and horrified Max was – hell, who wouldn’t be? – but at this moment he respected his almost-brother more than he had for years.

“Yeah, you’re right. The kid comes before anything else. We gotta get us a plan, fast.” He stared into the large, dark, truly ‘alien’ eyes and tried for reassurance. “Whatever caused this we’ll fix it somehow, Max…”

Slowly, they all filed back into the kitchen where Max fell onto a couch as if his legs would no longer support him. It was the only sign he gave that anything was wrong so the others tried to hide their shock at the physical changes in him.

Kyle quietly claimed the armchair, his tense gaze roaming restlessly over the group as he tried to avoid staring at Max. Breathing slowly and rhythmically to keep calm in the face of yet another ‘alien’ shock, he waited and watched.

Liz took a deep breath, suppressed all her other feelings and just let the sympathy and support she knew Max needed as a friend take over. Sitting down beside him as Isobel took the place on his other side, she reached out and took his re-shaped hand in silent comfort. He turned to look at her briefly, although she couldn’t read his gaze, then squeezed her hand and quickly turned back to look at his sister who was talking anxiously to the room at large.

“Do you think the Special Unit knows about us or is it only Tess they’re after?”

Michael spoke up from his seat next to Maria, on the opposite couch.

“They must know the dupes are here, Iz, since that messenger guy spoke to Lonnie this morning and he’s seen me and Maria, too. Whether they know about the dupes’ existence or just think it’s us meeting up at a secret hideout is anybody’s guess. The FBI, if it’s them, must have been following someone to know where to find Tess...”

Michael was keeping his emotions under control, trying to think coolly and rationally under pressure while Isobel was scared and impatient, making her snappish.

“Well, Tess and the dupes aren’t here, so what are we gonna do about the midnight rendezvous?”

“It’s only 2 o’clock now. There’s still plenty of time for them to turn up.”

Kyle wasn’t reassured by Maria’s optimism.

“Yeah, but where are they? I don’t like it. Even if Tess was deliberately keeping away from the first ritual to free Liz, she should be back now trying to hurry us into getting ready for the next one, she’s so desperate to find her baby…”

Max spoke up, his voice quiet and tense. His grip on Liz’s hand tightened, knowing she’d try to draw away when she heard what he had to say.

“Tess has no hidden agenda this time – she really is only interested in our son’s safety. I would know if she was lying to me. I do know she’s telling the truth, because I’ve…seen flashes...”

Everyone else stared at him in disbelief. It was Michael who stated the obvious.

“Yeah, well, in case you’ve forgotten, she had no problem mind-warping you to think that your baby couldn’t survive Earth’s atmosphere when she wanted to drag us back to Khivar. She convinced you that she was asleep in her own bed last night when she was really with Kyle. What makes you so sure she’s not mind-warping you when you have…flashes?”

Max looked wearily round at them all and even with his altered features they could see how deeply exhausted and strained he really was.

“I guess you’re right, I can’t be sure – but I just have this gut feeling that she’s genuine this time. She really has kept me sane all through this, even when she’s worried sick about little Zan.”

He had felt Liz freeze beside him when he spoke of Tess but, to his surprise, she didn’t try to withdraw her hand from his and he was deeply thankful for that. Max knew he had destroyed any chance of her forgiveness, but it seemed that maybe he still had her friendship…the knowledge gave him some much-needed strength.

He gathered his thoughts with an effort and tried to pay attention to what the others were saying.

“Did she say anything to you about where she was goin’, Valenti?”

“No, she just said that everyone thought she was asleep in bed. I assumed she meant she’d mind-warped them – when she left I thought she was going back here…”

“So where the hell is she? If Lonnie and Rath care enough to crawl out of bed and go look for her there must be somethin’ in it for them…”

“Michael, she forced them into being her bodyguards – she must still have some control over them or they wouldn’t still be here, don’t you think? They hate her almost as much as we do.”

“That’s only what they told us, Maria – who knows if it’s the truth or not? I don’t trust any of them. We gotta assume the worst case scenario – that Tess is missing for whatever reason and so are the dupes. So we have to come up with some ideas, fast.”

There was a long, fraught silence while everyone racked his or her brains. Michael was too restless to sit still, so he went to the kitchen to make fresh coffee for himself and, after a mental prod from Maria, for the others.

When he came back, no further progress had been made other than Maria’s suggestion that they should get to the meeting place really early, hide to see who turned up, then capture the kidnappers and force them to tell where the baby was…

Michael gloomily shot the idea down in flames, because he said they couldn’t be sure the house wasn’t under surveillance, despite the efforts of Tess’s very friendly Neighborhood Watch and, besides, they didn’t know if there was any cover in the park area and anyway, if they had any brains at all the kidnappers would be prepared for just that kind of attack.

Because Maria and Michael seemed ready to argue heatedly over this, Kyle suggested the ritual with the ‘spirit’ stones again, even without Tess, to maybe find the baby’s location. For lack of anything better to do, and because Max was distressingly eager to try it, they agreed.

“Let’s do it after lunch – we should keep our strength up ready for whatever happens…”

This was Kyle, suddenly starving as he remembered that their late breakfast seemed like centuries ago.

Tess’s kitchen yielded a surprising amount and variety of food, confirming that someone had shopped that morning. Fresh salad, bread, cheese and exotic fruits as well as frozen TV dinners, snacks and desserts filled the big fridge freezer to capacity. It showed that either they were prepared to settle in for a long stay or else the dupes had serious food issues.

“Be careful what we eat, though, remember what we agreed…”

Michael was still very cautious and reluctant to trust anything, even though he was hungry, too. Maria caught his doubts.

“Maybe we should just get pizza from that place in the main street…?”

Kyle sighed. The food in the fridge looked so fresh, it seemed a shame to ignore it – but it had been his idea not to risk eating or drinking anything they weren’t sure about in this house.

It was Max who came to his rescue, speaking with an effort through his weariness.

“You can take it from me the food’s not drugged – Tess needs you so she wouldn’t try anything and it wouldn’t occur to Lonnie and Rath to be as subtle as that – they’d just use their powers to attack you if they wanted to.”

“Yeah, good point, Evans.”

Kyle sounded almost friendly to his old enemy for once and immediately started in on making himself a sandwich, until Maria elbowed him out of her way and proceeded to fix snacks for everyone. Liz, after an uncertain moment, used her powers to fill a large jug with ice-cold Tabasco-flavored cherry Coke to share.

They all sat companionably around the table, just like old times at the Crashdown, although Liz quietly moved to sit next to Kyle, while Isobel sat close to her brother.

Max toyed with his food until Maria gave him a long, pointed look, after which he made himself eat to fuel his depleted energy. His mind was already on the ritual to come; he could feel the tenuous link to his son but he couldn’t get a clear direction. This time round, he wouldn’t – couldn’t – let himself be torn by doubts. Liz was back safely and he could now concentrate on locating baby Zan.

During the meal they discussed the options on what to do if they managed to get some clue to the kidnappers’ hideout. Michael was cool and thoughtful, showing restraint when Max just wanted to charge off into the night to mount a surprise attack.

“We don’t even know who or how many they are, so there’s no use in rushing off to attack before tonight even if we do somehow find out where they are – we’ll need to scout it out first.”

Max eventually agreed but with obvious reluctance and Michael knew he’d have to keep an eye on that situation.

Isobel and Liz saw with surprise that in the short time since they had fled Roswell, the two guys' attitudes had reversed completely. Michael under the pressure of responsibility had revealed the cool, clear thinking of a born leader while Max’s calm, patient façade had cracked under stress to reveal the controlling nature he shared with his sister but which he had always fought to suppress.

As they cleared the dishes and stacked them in the dishwasher, it became clear that Maria’s unusual silence during the arguments was because she had been thinking up a plan of her own.

“I have an idea – you’re not going to like it, Spaceboy, but it’s really the only practical way to scope out the enemy…” Maria rushed on before her own shaky courage failed her. “If she doesn’t turn up in time, I’ll pretend to be Tess and go in her place tonight…”

********

Chapter Sixty-Three

Michael was speechless for a moment; his lips moved soundlessly as he tried to find words to express his disbelief. Then he took a deep, calming breath, collected his wits and narrowed his eyes.

"Maria - have you lost your mind? No way in hell are you gonna pretend to be Tess."

"But Michael, I –"

"Nope, not gonna happen.”

"Michael – "

“No!”

“Mi –”

"Ma-RI-a!"

Michael's voice was loud and final, backed up with a mental growl, and Maria knew that he was really angry with her for even thinking about putting herself in danger. Frowning, she bit her lip hard against her own angry retort and decided to wait – maybe Tess would come back from wherever she was hiding or, if not, maybe someone would come up with a better idea…

“Hey, calm down, you two. Now is not the time to fight.” Isobel was forced to be peacemaker. “Michael’s right, Maria – it’s too dangerous. We’ll just have to think of some other way…”

Kyle and Liz watched the scene with interest. They both knew Maria too well not to realize that the issue was only on hold, but they both would bet on Michael to win this argument. Meanwhile, Max was getting impatient, hardly registering the brief spat except as a waste of valuable time in the search for his son.

“How soon can we be ready to try the ritual again for Zan?”

Michael tore his brooding gaze away from Maria to focus on Max with concern.

“Are you sure you want to risk it after what’s just happened to you? If the ‘Balance’ changed you physically when you weren’t even the focus of the ritual, what else can it do?”

“I don’t care about that – I’ve got to try…”

Max turned to Isobel, spaniel eyes pleading for her support and, as he expected, she came through for him, although with noticeable reluctance.

“Michael, I don’t like it either, but we have to do this. After all, we did it for Liz and we can’t do less for an innocent baby…”

Liz sent Isobel a mildly affronted look, but didn’t comment on the implied insult. Instead she readily agreed that they must rescue the child and said so; with Maria and Kyle adding their vocal support Michael gave way to the inevitable, although he made it very clear that he thought it was too soon after the last time.

They used the dining room again but at the very last minute Liz, embarrassed and apologetic, couldn’t bring herself to join in the ritual after all, although she volunteered to stay on guard. No one commented on her decision, although the others all had their private theories about her reasons.

This time healing wasn’t the aim but the same ritual of sipping water from the crystal goblet and linking hands took place to focus their minds on sharing their energies with Max, who would seek to get a fix on his son’s whereabouts –– in a similar way to the link Tess had created when he followed her ‘call’ to him by directional pull alone.

They all stood in the traditional circle, waiting nervously for something to happen, some drain on their energy as Max linked to his son and followed the trail to establish a ‘homing beacon’ for the search.

Then, unexpectedly, the stones’ power suddenly seized them all separately, whirling them away into private visions that left them shaken as never before.

Maria’s eyes filled with tears as she saw her mom sitting on a bed hugging a pillow in a protective gesture while staring into the shadows with dry, red-rimmed eyes that spoke of many long, sleepless nights. Guilt at deserting her mom hit Maria hard and she tried desperately to send her love and comfort, wishing that the tight mother-and-daughter bond that they had always shared could somehow reach through this weird alien ritual and give both of them the reassurance they needed.

Isobel saw Jesse working at a kitchen table, busy typing into his laptop with a frown of concentration on his face. This was a familiar picture from their short life together and gave her a nauseous feeling in her stomach even as her heart leapt in unexpected – unwelcome – joy. Love, hate and anguished pain swirled through her until Jesse suddenly lifted his head, seeming about to look right at her, and she was grateful when the connection instantly dissolved, leaving her hurt all over again and deeply confused.

Kyle clearly saw his father staring in horror at his left hand giving off green sparks in a darkened room. He, too, tried hard to reach his dad across twisted space and time and he succeeded for a moment when a flash of startled recognition appeared in Jim’s eyes, and a wave of emotions flooded through from him – a strong warning of danger and an urgent summons for help. Before Kyle could react the brief connection was broken, but it left him sick with fear for his father, alone in Roswell and developing alien powers under the sinister, secret surveillance of the FBI Special Unit....

Max waited quietly with his eyes closed for the energy build-up that would enable him to send a mental probe through his tenuous connection to his son and pinpoint the baby’s location. He was nearly at the end of his tether – physically and mentally exhausted by fighting the slow, constant, power drain from Zan and the ever-present emotional conflict of his feelings for Liz and Tess. The physical changes about which River Dog had warned them all had been wrought on him alone in the Balance – some part of his mind guessed that maybe it was because he had been so torn between saving Liz and his son that he couldn’t bring himself to make a decision. Since the mental balance was negative in him at that time, maybe his physical form had somehow changed under this intolerable pressure of stalemate caused by his inability to make a choice and act on it. He had no real answer, so he quickly dismissed the speculative thoughts from his mind. He really didn’t care right now.

His whole self – human and alien – was unreasonably hurt and angry at Liz’s last minute refusal to join the ritual for his son, but he tried to be honest with himself and admit he really couldn’t blame her after the way he’d treated her – and, besides, her own ordeal in the ‘Balance’ was still too close for comfort. Maybe it was for the best that she did stay out of the stones’ circle – at least he wouldn’t have to worry about her safety on top of everything else…

At the same time, Max was deeply worried about Tess’s disappearance, too. His Antarian King aspect remembered something of his Queen’s love and support in their previous lives and traces of that love still lingered on even after the many betrayals of this Earthly incarnation. He was convinced that she wouldn’t leave just when the help she needed to find their baby was finally ready and waiting for her – there could only be trouble and danger keeping her away and that would mean trouble and danger for all of them...

His anxious thoughts circled in his overwrought mind until he suddenly felt the balance between his human and alien sides shift within him once again and all his concentration focused exclusively on the link with Zan. He saw it as a bright silver thread in the darkness behind his eyelids and quickly followed the connection, feeding all his remaining strength into forging an unbreakable path he could trace back in the real world to find his son at last. Touching the newly formed baby-mind with a gentle, tentative probe, he tried to find some way of sending love and reassurance before he steeled himself to distort his healing power into making the necessary changes inside the tiny brain. However, he could find no way to reach past the protective barrier he found there. It seemed Tess’s son had his own mental defence – one even his own father couldn’t breach.

In King Zan/Max’s desperation, his first instinct was for more power and he reached out to tap into the strong, clear energies he could feel nearby – Michael, Maria, Isobel and Kyle were suddenly shimmering as separate, translucent colors on this mental plane – but he came to his senses just in time. He couldn’t bring himself to attack his son, even if it was for his own good. There would just have to be some other way through the defences. He wished Tess were there; he felt instinctively that the mother’s bond would provide the solution. It was imperative to find her before time ran out for all three of them.

Michael alone had no personal encounter on the ritual plane, but simply stood in the circle and allowed his powerful energies to flow out in support of Maria and his friends – he caught glimpses of their visions, fragments that hinted at grief and danger, love and pain, and wished hopelessly for the strength to survive the collective emotional meltdown he instinctively feared was about to engulf him…

Only a few minutes – or aeons – later each of the stone-bearers was thrown abruptly out of his or her personal experience back into the reality of the darkened dining room.

Liz watched anxiously as the group blinked back into consciousness of their surroundings but the dazed, worried expressions on all their faces made her heart sink. A sense of shame and guilt at her failure to help once again engulfed her.

Much as she wanted to help find the baby, she knew that she would have been a dangerously negative influence on the ritual. Max and Tess’s child would always be a traumatic reminder that her great ‘soulmate’ love had been just a romantic teenage delusion and all the pain and sacrifice hadn’t been worth it after all. Although that huge neurotic boil of hatred, grief and resentment had been lanced in the ‘Balance’ it still didn’t mean that she could forgive and forget as if nothing had happened. The alien ritual had simply allowed her a measure of calm acceptance and peace of mind – the mental fog had dissipated to allow her brain to finally think clearly again and find ways to move on with her life.

She thrust that thought out of her mind knowing that now wasn’t the time, so instead she went over to comfort a tearful Maria; but when Michael reached her friend first Liz lowered her eyes and hurriedly changed course towards Kyle, who looked to be in a state of deep shock and despair himself, like the others.

Kyle appeared to barely notice her anxious solicitude, so she led him unresisting away from the dining room into the kitchen to sit him at the table while she made a big pot of coffee. From the reactions she had seen in the others, she knew it would be needed.

Soon Isobel and Max drifted into join them, followed closely by Michael and Maria. Michael gave Liz a brief glance of approval when he saw that she had made coffee for everyone, but then looked round at his friends, all silent and obviously still in shock.

“Clearly, something unexpected happened to you all in there – so what about you, Max? Did you make the link?”

Max just shook his head, unable to speak, his despair clear even on his new alien features.

Maria had already told Michael, through their private connection, all about her vision of the grieving Amy, so she quietly repeated herself for the benefit of the others. Liz and Isobel, missing their own mothers so much too, were instantly sympathetic, both reaching across to squeeze her hands when she finished speaking and bit her lips in an effort to stop her tears. Michael had his arm around her, but Kyle and Max were still too lost in their own troubles to take more than cursory notice of anyone else, although the coffee had begun to revive them.

Isobel was next to report, still holding onto Maria’s hand tightly as she told them of seeing Jesse working on his laptop. She said she thought he had somehow sensed her presence, might even have actually seen her if the connection hadn’t broken before their eyes could meet. Maria asked her how she felt and Isobel – avoiding Kyle’s eyes – admitted to mixed feelings at seeing him again but didn’t want to talk about it.

So Michael turned to Kyle, who had waited with barely-controlled patience while the girls reported their experiences.

Carefully avoiding Isobel’s sympathetic eyes in his turn, Kyle reported in a flat, unemotional voice what he had seen of his father’s situation, then abruptly stood up and left the kitchen, heading down the hall to the cloakroom and locking himself in for some privacy. All the old resentment of his dad’s involvement with the aliens’ problems had risen up in him again as he angrily reverted to blaming them for the dangerous predicament that now left Jim Valenti trapped alone in Roswell with emerging alien powers. He couldn’t risk talking to the others just yet; he needed to calm down and clear his head before he could rejoin them.

A short spell of meditation showed him that blaming the aliens was a waste of time and energy – Michael and Isobel, if not Max, were now his closest friends and, besides, it was his father himself who had insisted in getting involved with the aliens’ lives, although that knowledge was no comfort to his son. Kyle knew that he needed to leave his anger in the past where it belonged and move forward. His friends, including Maria and Liz, would understand and help him to rescue his dad somehow. Kyle allowed himself a little hope and a few more minutes of meditation before he had to return to the group.

In his absence, the others – even Max – had discussed the ex-Sheriff’s predicament; guilt at leaving him behind when they ran mingled with shock and fear for the man who became their friend and protector. Michael finally stopped the anxious speculation by saying grudgingly – because he really didn’t want to let them go back into yet more danger – that they’d return to Roswell just as soon as they’d rescued the kid.

At his announcement, Maria looked suddenly relieved and hopeful at the thought of seeing her mom again, even if only for a brief moment, and the same thought of their own families brightened the faces of Isobel and Liz.

Kyle, re-joining the party at this point, sat down and merely nodded in acknowledgement when Michael told him of their intention to return to Roswell to help the ex-Sheriff.

There was no way any of them could ignore their protector’s plea for help and leave him to face the dangerous emergence of his powers alone. They had to find some way to help him safely through the early stages of learning control at least enough for him to be able to hide it from the Feds and the public. That meant they had to concentrate on the current situation and resolve it as soon as they could.

When Michael turned the discussion back to the kidnapper’s demand Max shook his head despondently.

“We need Tess here right now to create the tracking link to Zan. She’s his mother… Where can she be?”

“Look – just suck it up, Max, she’s not here and we have to make plans without her.”

Michael was already losing patience with his former leader, but he controlled himself and focused on the problem as he saw it.

“What do we know about the enemy? Any clues from the messenger guy?”

“They must be human – or using human bodies like Khivar does. I’m sure the guy went for a gun when we opened the door to talk to him…”

“Yeah, good point, Maria. Still leaves the field wide open, though. So – Feds, Skins or Khivar? My money’s on the Feds, ‘cause Jesse must have been in on the electronic bug hidden in the van. The timing was too slick to be anything else.”

Isobel winced, closing her eyes for an anguished moment, but she didn’t comment and Kyle quickly looked away, making himself concentrate on the discussion.

“Makes sense, Guerin. The Feds would be able to trace the kid’s location, too. They must have been watching our families at that point, since they suspected us of harboring Tess after the ship crashed – well, their tracker dogs led them straight to us, anyway, so it should have been obvious that they wouldn’t just go away.”

“Yes, we were all so blind and stupid back then – why didn’t it occur to any of us that they’d keep us under surveillance? It was so avoidable…”

At Maria’s comment there was a short, shocked silence at their collective failure to take the most basic precautions for their safety. Then Michael shrugged.

“Can’t be helped – too late to cry about it now. What do we do next, any ideas? And no, Maria, I don’t want to hear any more crap about disguising yourself as Tess.”

Maria’s eyes narrowed and her mouth opened to take angry issue with Michael’s harsh tone of voice when he gave this order – which of course she fully intended to ignore – but Isobel interrupted quickly before the fight could commence, although the small blonde continued to simmer quietly while the discussion went on around her.

Isobel’s suggestion was that someone should visit Tess’s neighbor and ask for the information Teddy had gathered on the mysterious messenger when he'd parked outside their property.

“Maybe the Neighborhood Watch could get the police to run an urgent check on him? They have photos and a license plate – maybe we could do something with them to find out more about him? I guess he’ll have to be awake around midnight tonight, but I could try to dreamwalk him if he takes a nap at some point before then...”

“It could work – who’s gonna go visit, since Tess isn’t here and they know her too well for anyone thinking of going in disguise…”

Michael risked a pointed sideways glance at Maria and she lifted her chin defiantly at him, although not in a playful way.

“Iz, it’d better be you, since it was your idea. Don’t go alone – take Liz with you. Two girls feeling scared about intruders will be more persuasive than any of us guys.”

He was surprised that Maria made no protest at being left out of this expedition, but he was actively suspicious when the other girls headed out on their mission and she just quietly kept watch from the dining room window seat without comment while the guys sat around drinking sodas and idly watching a sports channel on the TV to pass the time.

Her emotions were hard to read – she seemed now to be able to narrow their link to the lightest contact, though not so much that there was the remotest danger of breaking it. He knew she was as angry with him as he was with her, but she ought to understand that it was for her own good – he was protecting her…

***I do understand, Michael, but you have to understand, too*** Her mental voice was sharp – it was clear that this was an issue between them that wasn’t going to go away. ***I’m a part of this group and I can make a real contribution, even if I am the only one without super powers***

*** You’re the one keeping it all together, Maria, you know that – and powers have nothing to do with it. It’s when you go deliberately putting yourself into danger – it’s an insane idea and it scares the hell out of me***

Maria had expected this response and did her best to calm him down before he lost it completely. She had always read his emotions at some level, even before their connection, and the cold fear for her safety and the fierce protectiveness underlying his anger made her feel warm inside, even as she half-regretted her idea. However, she knew that her plan was the most practical fall-back option they had.

***We have to do something, Michael, and no one has come up with a better idea so far, admit it. It feels right to me. It’s not like I’ll be alone – we’ll be in constant contact so you’ll be able to follow me…***

***Not if they drug you or knock you out – maybe even kill you…***

***They won’t kill Tess yet – they would have done it before now, they’ve had plenty of chances since they know where she lives***

***Yeah, so it follows that they must also know what she looks like – you won’t fool them for a second. They’ll just kill you anyway, you’re expendable to them***

There was an uneasy silence in his mind as Maria thought about this new idea that very obviously hadn’t occurred to her before. Michael jumped restlessly up from his place on the couch and left the room to find her; the other two guys glanced at him, but continued to watch the game.

Pressing home his advantage, he went into the dining room. She was sitting with her back propped against the wall, legs stretched out along the deep window seat. Folding himself around behind her and wrapping her close in his arms, he rested his chin on the top of her head. He was perfectly well aware of his physical effect on her and was ruthlessly prepared to use it to get his way in this matter of her life and death.

What he’d forgotten to take into account was her physical effect on him.

She sighed and snuggled into his embrace, tipping her head back to look up at him as the soft swell of her breasts crushed against his arm when she stretched a hand up to caress his cheek. The movement also ground her ass lightly against his cock, which throbbed in response. He suppressed a groan. She wriggled again and he shifted uncomfortably, which turned out to be a bad move on his part. He forgot what he wanted to say to her as his world narrowed to the irresistable sight of her luscious lips parted for him and the sudden heated awareness that she felt the same way about his own…

Maria smothered her own secret smile before she lifted her face for his kiss. Spaceboy needn’t think he had it all his own way in the seduction stakes…but then his mouth claimed hers and she too instantly forgot what she’d intended to say…

They kissed for a few blissful minutes, the argument forgotten for the moment as they lost themselves in their own private world.

All too soon their peace was shattered by the sound of voices in the hallway as the door opened in response to one frustrated alien’s impatient application of her powers. Reluctantly tearing themselves away from each other, they followed Liz and Isobel into the living room where Kyle turned the sound down on the TV (although he flicked the occasional glance at the score) so that the girls could make their report.

“Back so soon? The feminine charm didn’t work on the Neighborhood Watch, I take it?”

Kyle could read the answer in Isobel’s petulant pout as she lowered herself gracefully onto the nearest couch beside Max while Liz sank into the solitary armchair.

It was Liz who replied to his teasing question, Isobel still couldn’t quite meet his eyes.

“Well, it might have worked on Teddy if we could have got him alone long enough, but Mrs Teddy wasn’t nearly so sure about us. We told them we were Tess’s visiting high school friends, but it seems she has them mind-warped to be suspicious of all strangers and without her there to vouch for us, we got nowhere.”

Isobel took over the story, her irritation level sky high.

“All Teddy’s surveillance info was apparently handed over to the police patrol that drove by an hour ago. We must go talk to the nice officers down at the station – they do a wonderful job. They patrol the area constantly since the latest burglary a couple of weeks ago…but, of course, dear Tess will have told us all about that.”

“We must be sure to lock up all the doors and windows before we go to bed and Tess must bring us with her next time she comes over to say hello. Have a nice visit.”

Liz practically spat the last quote. Tess had been too efficient in setting up her defences – there would be no help from that quarter.

Max looked angry for a few moments as yet another promising idea ended in disappointment, but then his dark, unreadable eyes slowly turned to Maria, sitting quietly next to Michael and looking as frustrated at the situation as he felt.

"Maria – your idea about pretending to be Tess isn't such a bad one – and what other choice do we have? They told Tess to come alone – so they won't approach any of the rest of us. Listen, this is do-able. If we all hide nearby we can protect you. All you have to do is go with them and we’ll follow right behind. They must be in the area, they can’t be hiding too far away.” He turned to Michael, belatedly noticing the incredulous glare, and attempted to reassure the big alien before all hell broke loose. “She won’t be in their hands long enough to be in any serious danger ."

Michael didn’t know how he stopped himself going for Max’s throat but by a huge effort he managed to control his anger that someone else was actually taking this stupidly dangerous idea seriously. The others watched in apprehensive silence as he stood up to pace around the room, big hands clenched into fists, his pent up energy crackling blue over his skin as he tried to keep control of his powers and avoid serious damage to his surroundings. His voice was harsh when he finally stopped to confront Max, looming over him threateningly.

“How can you even think of asking Maria to put her life on the line for you, Max – these people are ruthless, don’t you remember? They’d just kill her as soon as they found out she wasn’t Tess – or don’t you care? Anyone’s expendable when it comes down to your Royal Majesty’s interests, is that it? Maria doesn’t have any powers to defend herself and you expect her to just present herself as a gift to the enemy. Would you feel the same way about it if it were Liz’s idea? No, I don’t think so, yet she’s closer to Tess’s height and build. Oh, hey, wait, if you’re so set on using other people, maybe it should be her instead, she’s even got powers to defend herself, too.”

At some point during his furious rant, Michael felt something upset Maria in some other way, when her heightened emotions had suddenly closed down to the faintest thread of connection and he could barely read her. It puzzled and worried him, but he was so caught up in his anger that he thrust it aside until later when he could get her alone.

She hurriedly stood up to face him, quelling Max’s angry response, and was talking aloud to him as if they were the only two people in the room.

"Shut up, Max. Wait. Now just think about it, Michael, it makes sense...and maybe he’s right, it's not so dangerous as all that. I don’t even have to actually go with them. If Tess isn't back, then someone has to be there to explain that she's gone missing – buy us some time. She must have something they want, for them to kidnap her baby. So they'll either wait for her or they'll tell us what they want... We can still follow them, whichever."

'No, it's still madness. I won't let you risk your life for Tess or anyone else. I told you that at the first sign of danger to you we leave."

"It's not the same if I'm volunteering…"

The others watched as Maria and Michael glared at each other in mutual, angry frustration; irresistible force finally met immovable object.

Liz spoke quietly into the dangerous silence, drawing the attention of everyone although Michael and Maria continued to maintain eye contact.

“Michael’s right – maybe I should be the one to go. I am the smallest after Tess…”

“No!”

The instant objection came simultaneously from both Max and Maria equally determined, though for different reasons, that Liz shouldn’t be the one to take the risk.

Max felt a stab of shame that Michael had read him right - he couldn’t risk losing Liz again, but he could live with the guilt in accepting Maria’s freely offered help for his son.

Maria’s motives were different, but much more complicated and private – she was the last one to go looking for trouble and she didn’t even want to admit to herself what it was that drove her to persist in her arguments and refuse to back down even in the face of Michael’s obvious fear for her safety.

Michael, still watching her intently, caught some of her confused emotions through their link and, suddenly understanding more than she knew, surprised her when he unexpectedly held up his hands in surrender and caved.

“Okay, Maria, you win this time – but you gotta do it my way and you don’t take any stupid risks, understand?”

She smiled shakily at him and nodded, but he was still angry with her and clearly wasn’t satisfied.

“Promise, Maria?”

“Yes, Michael, I promise. I’ll do it your way…and I won’t take any stupid risks.”

Relieved that she didn’t have to fight anymore for something she was secretly regretting already, she slipped her hand in his and led him back to the couch.

Michael was already thinking and planning ahead, trying to blot out his fears for Maria going into danger by ensuring that all possible protective measures were in place...

"If we're gonna do this, then we'll need to keep in contact. So we'll need cells."

"Yeah, good point, Guerin, but where we gonna get them?"

Isobel, high priestess of retail therapy, remembered something she'd unconsciously noticed that morning.

"There's a big mall near the motel - we've still got time to drive over there now and pick some up before the stores close."

"Who's volunteering? We can't all go..."

Michael frowned. He knew that he should stay here at the house in case there were any new developments; Maria would be staying close to him and Max couldn't be seen in public wearing his present face. That left Kyle, Isobel or Liz... he wasn’t happy about splitting the group in the face of unknown danger, but there was no other choice.

Kyle’s thinking matched his.

"Guess that would have to be me..."

Isobel spoke up, her tone leaving no room for argument.

"You can't go alone, Kyle - what if something happened and we didn't know where you were, like Tess? Liz and I will come with you. It'll save time, too. We shouldn't buy them all from the same store if we can avoid it - we don't want people to remember us."

Liz was hesitant, directing the question at Michael, but unable to meet his eyes.

"Is it safe? The FBI could trace us..."

"Not if we get pre-paid ones and don't use our real names when we talk. We'll destroy them when we move on. Nothing left to trace to us..."

“Okay, then, let’s go right now. We’ll take the Chevy.”

Isobel always preferred the Chevy, having a possessive feeling about it that she didn’t bother to hide. She shepherded Kyle and Liz briskly out of the door and a few moments later the truck left the driveway, headed out on their mission.

Left alone in the house with a hostile Michael who clearly found his presence intolerable and Maria who seemed to want him to stay around as a distraction from Michael’s intention to get her alone, Max soon took the easy option and quietly retired upstairs to his bedroom, anxious to avoid any further trouble until the others returned.

In the kitchen, Michael automatically made coffee and apple cinnamon tea with his powers and went to find Maria, who was curled up on the window seat once again. He set the cups carefully down on a small table within her reach and dragged a chair close to the window for himself. He didn’t want another angry confrontation with her, but he also knew that the distraction of physical contact would cloud the issue that needed to be sorted out between them…

Maria watched him carefully until he was settled down beside her then she remarked that she wasn't really thirsty.

"Thanks, Michael, but if I drink any more I'll just float away - and you know all that coffee you've had today can't be good for you..."

"Fine, whatever. Maria, we gotta talk."

Maria giggled nervously at this, drawing her legs up and wrapping her arms defensively round her knees.

"Michael, you never want to talk - what's wrong?"

"I said something that hurt you back there and I need you to know that whatever it was, I didn't mean to. You've almost cut me off from our connection, princess, and that hurts me..."

Maria's green eyes opened wide in shock and guilt, and the next instant she'd launched herself at Michael, curling up in his lap and wrapping her arms tightly round his neck as she whispered in his ear.

"Oh, Michael...I'm so, so sorry. I never want to hurt you, either - but this has nothing to do with you, please don't think that. It's just that I can't even talk about it yet until I understand it myself... Just give me some space, Spaceboy, please?"

He held her tighter, their mental link fully open again in mutual reassurance, and she laid her head on his shoulder, savoring the restored peace between them.

Thinking back, he could have kicked himself when he realized what he’d said that had hurt her. He’d long suspected that Maria was still sensitive about being the only one in the group without alien powers; he knew her emotional hackles had risen because she wrongly interpreted his innocent comments to mean that as an unempowered human she was inferior to the rest of the group. She already knew his views on that theory, so it followed that in going through with this reckless scheme to impersonate Tess she must be trying to prove something to Liz and the others - and, knowing his Maria, probably to herself...

Just as he was about to put her right on this, a movement outside diverted his attention to the arrival of the van in the driveway. The lecture would have to be put on hold - but he quickly sent her fair warning through their connection and she stirred indignantly in his arms before she saw the Dupes climbing out of the vehicle and heading for the house.

Untangling themselves, both quickly stood up to go greet the re-appearance of Lonnie and Rath, but as Maria moved forward Michael held her back.

***Quiet, Blondie, listen...***

***Why, what's wrong?***

***That was a key turning in the lock - now why the hell would the Dupes need to use a key?***

********

Chapter Sixty-Four

Maria and Michael went out into the hall to find Max already there – he must have seen the dupes’ arrival from his bedroom window because he was already at the foot of the stairs waiting to confront them as they came in.

Lonnie and Rath, who was carrying a takeout pizza box, showed no surprise at the ‘welcoming’ committee and Michael wasted no time in interrogating them.

“Well? Any news?” His voice was harsh because his suspicions had been aroused and he’d already guessed what the answer would be.

“Nah, looked all over. Her SUV’s still in dat motel parkin’ lot, dint find nuthin’ else.”

Rath was angry and frustrated, his accent thick, but he still spared time to check out Maria, although he hurriedly looked away when he saw Michael’s glare.

“What took you so long? This is a small town and you’ve been gone for nearly six hours.”

Michael sounded suspicious and Rath’s eyes narrowed.

“Yeah, so we checked out our crib, too, in case she’d gone back there, but ain’t no sign of da bitch anywhere.”

“You went all the way into New York City?” Michael’s voice was openly disbelieving.

“Why, ya don’t believe us?” Rath’s expression turned threatening for a moment, but Michael ignored his double’s flash of temper and dragged the issue back on track.

“Whatever. There’s been a development here – ”

Max interrupted, impatient to get to the point.

“That guy this morning brought a message from the enemy, whoever they are. They’ve got my son and they want Tess to meet them alone at midnight tonight.”

As he spoke, he moved out from the shadow of the staircase and his altered features were revealed. Until then, Rath and Lonnie’s attention had been focused on Michael and Maria so that they were clearly taken by surprise, mouths gaping for a moment in shock.

“Seems like we missed out on all the excitement, baby.”

Rath draped his free arm round Lonnie’s shoulders and she didn’t shrug it off this time or pretend that she wasn’t shaken; but then she quickly pulled herself together, exchanging a quick glance with Rath before questioning Max.

“This what the ‘spirit stones’ did to ya?”

There was a taunting note in her voice but Michael thought he saw something like disappointment cross her face, though he couldn’t be sure.

Rath looked critically at Max’s distorted features but didn’t seem overly surprised by what he saw.

“Ya musta fucked up the ritual somehow – the change ain’t gone all the way. Looks like ya got frozen in the middle of shapeshifting… Ain’t all there, are ya?”

He laughed, cruelly amused at his own joke. Lonnie instantly cuffed Rath round the ear with stinging force, causing him to glare resentfully at her and then look guilty for an instant. She bared her teeth at Max in a smile that never reached her eyes, the classically beautiful features identical to but somehow totally different from Isobel.

“Don’t pay no mind to meathead, he’s just hungry and horny. So, did it work? Did ya track down the Heir?”

Max didn’t appear to register either the taunt or the smile; instead he stared grimly back at her while he quickly brought the dupes up to speed.

The two dupes said nothing when he’d finished but exchanged another enigmatic look then shouldered their way through the little crowd in the hall and into the kitchen where they raided the refrigerator. Lonnie helped herself to some leftover chicken salad and a cheesecake dessert while Rath ate the warm spicy pizza, tearing into it greedily like he hadn’t eaten for days.

“Ain’t nuthin’ like the ’za in the ’hood, but I ain’t eaten since breakfast so this’ll hafta do…” Rath grinned at Maria and spoke with difficulty through a mouthful of food. “Say what ya like about the Queen, but she ain’t about to let anyone starve.”

Maria turned away in disgust. At least Michael had eventually grown up and worked out that good manners were less likely to attract unwelcome attention so she rarely had to look away when they ate together any more. It wasn’t difficult to guess that the dupes didn’t care about anything but their own interests and she suspected they probably had never even bothered to hide their strange abilities as carefully as the Roswell group.

Michael went over to the counter, avoiding the espresso machine this time, filled the big glass coffee pot with water and changed that into hot coffee before bringing it over to the kitchen table where Lonnie, Max and Maria were sitting spaced well apart. Maria, privately clued in to his actions, casually rose and reached for cups to place on the table and then went to fetch the milk and sugar.

“I’ll have tea, please, Michael.”

“Guess its coffee for everyone else, except Maria, right?”

Lonnie smiled at him and Rath grunted derisively, so he poured black coffee into all the mugs, then waved his hand over one to change the molecules into the tea pattern for his girlfriend and returned to lean against the counter as far away from the still chewing Rath as possible.

Maria reached across and took a cup, adding milk but no sugar just the way she liked it. She passed a cup to Max, who thanked her with a half-smile and went back to his brooding silence, instantly forgetting its existence.

Lonnie reached for hers without comment, adding milk and too much sugar while Michael collected a cup of his own and casually passed his hand over it to sweeten it with his powers, not bothering with the sugar on the table or the milk that he didn’t use anyway.

Rath finally finished stuffing his face and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, belching loudly in satisfaction. Maria shuddered in revulsion and pushed her cup away without drinking from it.

Lonnie had been watching Michael’s every move and now chose to ask about the plans for later, pouting with all Isobel’s petulance when he refused to talk about it.

“We wait for the others to come back first. Anyway, why do you want to help us? I thought you hated Tess and wanted out.”

At his harsh question, Lonnie’s pout became an angry snarl.

“Yeah, ‘cept we ain’t got no choice but to find Tess and helpin’ ya’s our only lead – she’s alive ’cause we still got the deep mind warp that makes us protect her. We know it’s there, but we can’t break out of it – we’ve tried, but this one’s too strong to fight unless she takes it away or…she dies. ’Sides, that ain’t–”

Rath rested a heavy hand on her shoulder as he leaned forward to reach past her for the last unclaimed cup on the table and she stopped talking abruptly. He added his own milk and sugar to the cooling liquid and then stepped back to his place against the counter. Lifting the cup to his lips, he took a large gulp then spluttered in surprise.

“Hey, what’s this piss - this ain’t java? Watcha tryin’ ta do – poison me?”

He looked down into his cup, momentarily confused because it wasn’t the taste he was expecting and Maria reached for her own cup and took a sip.

“It’s my tea – because this is coffee. I must have picked the wrong cup…”

He smacked his lips and offered to swap his cup for hers, but she fastidiously waved it away.

“No, that’s ok – I’ll drink this now I’ve started. You can just change the tea to coffee and, hey, problem solved.”

Rath shrugged and passed his hand over his cup in the same casual gesture that Michael used. He took another gulp and grinned meaningfully over at Lonnie.

“Wanna hit the hot-tub, bitch? S’been a long day already and looks like we got a long night ahead of us…”

Lonnie followed Rath out of the kitchen, with another inviting stare at Michael over her shoulder, and as soon as he made sure that they really were outside on the deck he went straight over to Rath’s cup and sniffed it.

“Tea. This is still tea. He never changed it into coffee like he wanted us to believe…”

Michael and Maria stared at each other while Max frowned at them in puzzlement.

“Why, what’s going on? Is something wrong?”

Michael came over to sit at the table with Maria where he could see across the hallway in case the dupes came back inside, and quietly explained his suspicions. Max was not convinced.

“Just because they used a key, you think they’ve lost their powers?”

“That or they’re not the real Rath and Lonnie – but they look exactly like Michael and Isobel, even though they really don’t.” She caught Michael’s faint grin and rolled her eyes at him. “Oh, well, you know what I mean, Spaceboy. It’s just too good a physical copy for them to be just, you know, celebrity look-alikes…”

“Oh, come on, Michael, that doesn’t prove anything.” Max ignored Maria’s comment, on the verge of losing patience with them both.

“It’s damn suspicious. First the key and just now Rath definitely only pretended to change his tea into coffee – just tell me one good reason why he would do that?”

“Maybe he’s got a secret tea habit?”

Max saw that his weak attempt at humor had only irritated Michael so he quickly got serious.

“Look, I don’t trust them either but just using a key and drinking tea instead of coffee isn’t proof that they’ve lost their powers.”

“Well, you’ve been living with them in this house for days, Max? Have they used their powers since you’ve been here?”

“Um – well, I guess I don’t know. I never took that much notice of them – they just ran errands for Tess and mostly kept out of my way. I know she was mad because they couldn’t use the stones to connect in the ritual…but she thought that was because you had somehow imprinted the stones so they only worked for you. That’s why she called you here – and she was right, we are each imprinted to our own stone. So that’s still no proof that they are powerless.”

Maria felt Michael’s temper beginning to rise as he saw that Max was dismissive of his theory so she jumped in quickly to defuse the tension building between them.

“Michael and I both saw that Rath only pretended to use his powers to change the tea into coffee, but if you won’t believe us then there’s nothing we can do to except warn the others to be on their guard and watch the dupes like a hawk for more proof.”

“Well, if you’re both so sure, then why don’t you just ask them? It’s easy to check out your theory and if they don’t have powers, they’re not going to be any threat to us. If they do, then we can use their help to rescue my son.”

Michael looked back at him and shook his head in disbelief.

“You really think it’s that simple, Max? No, they’re up to something and I want to find out what it is without letting them know we’re on to them…”

“Paranoid much, Michael?”

The insult was out before he was even aware of thinking it and Max cringed inwardly, knowing he had gone too far this time, waiting for the explosion of anger, knowing he was just too bone-weary to argue or apologise or care either way.

The silence went on for so long that Max looked up warily, to see with a shock of surprise that Michael was still casually lounged on the opposite side of the table, his expression cool and sardonic, faintly amused.

“Go get some sleep, Maxwell.”

Michael’s tone was dismissive, but his voice was again unexpectedly gentle, like the time only a few hours earlier when Max had looked into the mirror and discovered himself brutally changed in the Balance.

Max closed his eyes for a moment against the sight of this new Michael displaying a calm confidence that had nothing to do with the old, arrogant bravado he’d displayed for so long in Roswell to cover his insecurity. He looked like a man who was finally comfortable in his own skin.

Resentment at the change in his second-in-command slid through his mind but without any real heat. It no longer mattered. Max let exhaustion wash over him again. He climbed heavily to his feet and headed out the door towards the stairs. He hadn’t the strength to argue or even care about the dupes or anything else right then; he just needed to rest some more while he had the chance.

Watching him go, Maria felt some sympathy despite all the anger she held banked up for the way he’d behaved to his friends and the still-vivid memory of the time he’d tried to kill her… It had to be tough knowing that his baby son was not only in the hands of his enemies, but gradually draining his powers in a slow fight to the death.

Making her mind up, she quickly followed him down the hall where she caught him up at the foot of the stairs and laid her hand gently on his arm. He looked down at her with his strange, unreadable dark eyes and waited while she struggled with words.

“ Max. I can only guess what hell you must be going through but I just want you to know that you’re not alone in this. I mean, yes, we have all these other issues and you know I’m sooo not going to let them slide but – setting them aside for the moment – we’re all back together now and tonight we’re going to kick some butt and rescue little Zan, 'kay?”

Max reached out to hug her with careful wonder, as if she was some fragile treasure he was afraid to crush, feeling a huge rush of affection for the human girl whose underlying strength and friendship he’d mostly ignored or taken for granted. Her familiar mix of threat and kindness was the first gesture that had managed to truly reach him in the world of pain, confusion and exhaustion he’d been living in since forever. He tried to think of something to say that would convey his deep gratitude that she still cared enough to offer comfort despite his behaviour.

“Thanks, Maria. I just wish…” His voice choked into silence; then he gave her a final squeeze and headed up to his room.

Maria turned back to see Michael leaning in kitchen doorway watching her.

***What? What? I had to say something, Michael. He’s screwed up even worse than Liz, plus whatever the Balance did to him if that Rath is telling the truth. That doesn’t mean he’s off the hook for anything, but right now I thought he could use a friendly word…***

***Yeah, well, I just wish I could be sure he’s worth your concern – he isn’t the same Max who left Roswell and I don’t trust him any more now than I did before we got here***

She moved into his strong arms, resting her head on his chest and breathing a sigh at the comfort this always brought them both.

***None of us are the same people who left Roswell – can you believe it’s only been two weeks? It feels like a whole other lifetime ago***

***Feels good, though…***

***Yes, being with you on the road and hiding out in the mountains – I loved that – but about to go up against unknown enemies? Not so sure about that part, Spaceboy***

***Yeah, it more than sucks and I still hate that you’re hellbent on looking for danger***

She shifted uncomfortably in his hold, feeling guilt mixed up in the growing fear she wouldn’t admit, even to herself, yet. It was hard to hide it from Michael, but he and the others must never find out how much she was secretly regretting her impulse. There was no other choice now unless Tess herself showed up.

***You know we already discussed this. We just need the plan and when the others get back from that mall, we can start on it right away. I just want this over so that we can move on with our lives***

***Gotta warn Kyle and Isobel about the dupes, too. We gotta find a way to prove that they’ve lost their powers***

Their presence always made him deeply uncomfortable and his new suspicions did nothing to shake his opinion that they were amoral, untrustworthy and undoubtedly trouble of some kind, with or without powers.

There was the crunch of wheels on gravel outside and they both straightened up, alert for any unexpected noise.

***Listen, I think the others are back. Just stay here until I check it out, can’t be too careful***

***Wait***

Maria pulled him into a deep, passionate kiss, tangling her fingers in the hair at the back of his neck while his hands slid down to her ass, pressing her tightly against him. It was a crowded thirty seconds before she reluctantly tore her mouth away from his.

***Couldn’t let you go without a kiss, Spaceboy. It will probably be the last time we’ll be alone for the rest of the evening…***

Reminded of that sacrifice to the call of duty, Michael suppressed his feelings of acute disappointment and frustration, putting her gently to one side before moving quickly into the living room to look out of the window. Maria was naturally close on his heels, determined to see for herself.

“Okay, you can relax, it’s the Chevy – it’s them. Oh, wait.”

She held her breath for a moment, her heart leaping suddenly in relief, as another vehicle pulled into the drive.

“Isn’t that Tess’s SUV, too?”

********

Chapter Sixty-Five

Maria's heart sank when she saw Kyle climb out of the SUV alone. There was no sign of Tess so it looked like she would have to go through with her reckless plan after all.

Kyle followed Isobel and Liz into the house and answered the unspoken question before Michael or Maria could ask.

“We stopped by the motel on the way back from the mall and found Tess’s SUV in the lot. Might come in useful for us tonight and if she turns up and finds it gone, she’ll have no trouble mind-warping someone to give her a ride home.”

Once the three were sitting around the kitchen table quenching their thirsts with iced coffee or cherry-Tabasco coke and Liz was hungrily devouring cookies, Michael quickly filled them in on his suspicions about the dupes. He didn’t find any doubters in this audience; they were as wary as he was and just as anxious to check out his theory.

The eight cell phones had been pre-paid at the stores and now they were quickly unpacked while Maria found a scratch pad and pen in her pack for Liz to make a list of the numbers and assign them. This small organizational task seemed to sooth the girl who still appeared to be subdued since her emergence from the pod. Then everyone set about programming all the contact numbers ready for later. This took several minutes and the silence of concentration was finally broken when Kyle finished a few moments ahead of the rest. He dug around in his pack and produced some tourist flyers and a map of the area that he’d picked up at the mall, spreading them out over the table while he reported on the expedition.

“We checked out the Taylor Street Park on the way back – it’s small, mostly grass with a few shade trees in a lot between office buildings. It only has the one entrance. Not much cover to hide in and it must be real quiet and deserted at night. Taylor Street goes south towards the lakes and north out towards the highway to New York, and the map shows there are other country roads to the east and west they could use, too. So, Guerin,” he looked over at Michael, “you come up with a plan yet?”

With all eyes upon him, Michael focused his speculative gaze on the outspread map and flyers.

“I’ve been thinkin’ about it and, yeah, maybe I do…. We don’t need to bring the others into it right now – Max needs all the sleep he can get and I’d rather keep the dupes out of it for as long as we can. We just can’t trust them.”

He picked up the map and scanned it until he found the Taylor Street Park and used Maria’s pen to circle it.

“First of all, my priority is to protect Maria at all times.” He stared hard at Liz, who blushed and lowered her eyes. “I think we should go with the idea she came up with earlier – just tell them Tess is missing and put the ball in their court again. Don’t give them any reason to think Maria is Tess after she’s got their attention.”

“Maria, are you really sure you want to do this?”

Isobel was getting increasingly anxious now that the time for action approached and she was getting scared for her friend.

“I don’t see any other way, do you? Anyhow, you and Michael and Kyle will all be there looking out for me, so what have I got to worry about with other-worldly protection?”

She gave them all a bright, if slightly shaky, smile that reassured nobody, but none of them were proof against her determination, so nothing further was said.

“So, let’s get on with it.” Michael spoke more harshly than he’d intended. He knew that Maria wouldn’t back off now, so he quickly moved on. “I came up with a few ideas on tracking them that I’ll get to later. We should check out the map first so we can try to work out where they’ll go after the meeting.”

“Where would the Feds hide around here to spy on Tess? It’s a commuter town and this is a wealthy area. That must be how Tess took over the Neighborhood Watch so easily. People around here would be quick to notice anything suspicious that might threaten their property.”

“I don’t know how the Special Unit even found Tess, but they certainly knew where to deliver the message, so they must be watching us now, too, in spite of her precautions.” Michael glanced around at the group. “Anyone got any ideas how or where?”

Kyle suddenly sat up straight in his chair and slapped his palm against his forehead in the classic ‘I’m an idiot’ gesture.

“Buddha, where did I leave my brain? Hey, don’t anyone here answer that – I’ve got powers, y’know, and I’m not afraid to use ’em.” He narrowed his eyes in mock-threat and stared round at the others. No one grinned back, so he quickly got serious again. “Now that I think about it, I should have known there was something wrong when I heard about those regular hourly police patrols. It just wouldn’t happen because of a few random burglaries. Neighborhood Watch covers that kind of thing because the police don’t have the resources. Hey, you know, it’s likely that Teddy gave his surveillance photos right back to the bad guys he was watching out for…”

He shook his head angrily, disgusted with himself for failing to spot what he considered should have been an obvious clue to a lawman’s son. Isobel reached over to touch his hand and when he glanced up in surprise their eyes met and they exchanged a small, embarrassed smile. This did not go unnoticed by Maria who filed the gesture away for private speculation at a later date. Tonight, she thought wistfully, romance would be the last thing on her mind.

***Later for us, Blondie***

Michael’s sudden lust-soaked mental promise of his intentions made her smile privately to herself and him – she knew that romance wasn’t exactly what Spaceboy had in mind – but just knowing he’d been tuned in to her feelings gave her a small respite from the queasy fear that was slowly growing in the pit of her stomach. She felt his attention return to the conversation around them and made herself concentrate again, too, raising a point that had occurred to her earlier.

“Michael, if there are only a few of the Special Unit left, they’d all need to stay close to the area for surveillance.”

“Yeah, good point. So they’ll probably be holding the kid somewhere close by, too. Remember, that agent we found workin’ with Topolski stayed in a motel in Roswell. It’s likely they’d do the same here. After they have what they want – Tess herself surrendering without using her powers, at a guess – then they can travel wherever, as long as they keep mother and son apart.”

Isobel added her thoughts to the discussion, her nerves now betrayed only in the way she endlessly twisted her wedding ring on her finger.

“Travelling with a young baby isn’t so easy, he’ll need constant care and attention. They won’t bring little Zan with them tonight either – that would give Tess the chance to use her powers against them, when her son’s safety is the only reason she’d hold off killing them…”

Maria agreed with her.

“Anyway, Tess wouldn’t do anything either way without proof in case it really did endanger her baby – they must have some kind of photographic evidence, at least– ”

Liz interrupted, her usually soft voice shrill with a hint of angry disbelief.

“Don’t you think they already know we’re all here and it’s a trap? They’ll expect us to try to follow them, no matter what it says in the note – have you even considered that?”

Michael looked at Liz with his best wooden expression hiding his annoyance. He didn’t feel any different about her after the Balance ritual than he did before. The rare pangs of pity he’d felt for her troubles never lasted long. She still irritated the hell out of him just by being on the same planet.

“Yeah, I have and it’s part of my plan. I’m not so sure they will expect us to follow but if we do, of course they’ll be ready for us.”

“Why not just lead us all into a trap?”

Isobel was reluctantly forced to support Liz’s fears, but Michael was ready to counter that issue.

“They haven’t got the resources to capture all of us, or they would have done it by now. Their best chance would always have been to pick us off one by one – and my guess is this time they’ve started with Tess. She’s the one they’d want to capture real bad because she killed all those military personnel and destroyed their secret base – they’ve warned us to keep away and got her kid as hostage to make sure we do.”

Liz was still doubtful.

“We don’t know if that’s even true. If it is, then is it actually with them here or is it somewhere else altogether? Probably they’re keeping it in a Government lab facility…”

Maria was horrified at Liz’s apparently stony assessment and rushed to take issue with her.

“Oh, no, I think it’s much more likely they’ve got him close by. If there are only a few of them left it must be a maverick operation and I’d guess they’d be short of time and resources until they have real proof of alien existence. If the Special Unit had official Government recognition we’d all be prisoners right now…”

While the two girls were arguing the point, Michael’s eye had been caught by one of the flyers and having read it, he silently pushed it over to Kyle who immediately saw what he’d spotted and interrupted the discussion.

“Hey, ladies, look here. Summer rental cabins and compounds out by a lake….”

He passed the flyer to the girls as Michael explained.

“That’s where I would choose if I was an FBI alien-surveillance-and-kidnap team with a young baby in tow and I had to base myself in this area. A rented family compound outside town with two or three cabins would make for real privacy…”

“Yeah, Guerin, good thinkin’, man. It’s the perfect base for a covert operation, better than a motel.”

Michael was privately relieved that they’d come up with a good guess at the enemy’s location. His anxiety levels were rising fast now that Maria’s life really was going to be on the line, but he locked down his emotions and made himself think calmly and coldly about the best way to ensure her safety and rescue the baby, too.

Just at that moment, they all heard the dupes coming inside from the hot tub on the still sunny deck, damp towels draped round them and paying no heed to the trail of wet footprints they left behind them. The two passed by the kitchen door and down the hall with only a casual flick of Rath’s hand and a wink to Maria as acknowledgement. They appeared to have no curiosity about the council of war that was obviously in session and this in itself confirmed the suspicions of the group round the table that Rath and Lonnie were up to something.

Michael listened until he heard their footsteps ascend the stairs before he turned his attention back to the plan.

“Collecting this map was good thinkin’, too, Valenti.” He studied the map more closely, tracing the long, straight Taylor Street with his finger as he talked.

“We’ve got four vehicles for eight of us, if we include the dupes, so we split into pairs. I’ll be with Maria so we’ll see were they head and then we warn whoever they’ll pass to tail them while the rest of us catch up as fast as we can... I bet they’ll head for the lake.”

Isobel raised her eyes to the ceiling in disbelief.

“That’s your great plan, Michael? Hide, wait and follow them? Could you be any more obvious?”

Michael carried on talking as if Isobel hadn’t spoken.

“See here on the map, Taylor Street south ends on the one road that circles this lake – we only have to set one lookout to see whether they head east or west around it. The summer cabin areas are marked on the flyers and according to the map all access must be from this one road, so that helps us a lot.”

Isobel anticipated his reasoning, but was still unimpressed.

“I guess you mean we wait for your call and then follow their car to the compound – but surely they’ll spot a tail easily on an empty road or track. They’ll just wait and ambush us or lead us off on a wild goose chase…?”

“No, because we don’t have to follow so closely that we keep them in sight by that point. They’ll be expecting us to follow them, but we make them think we obeyed their instructions to the letter and kept away.”

“Huh?” Kyle was as puzzled at this as all the others. “Then just how are we gonna find them? We don’t have any electronic bugs like they used on the van…”

“Don’t need a bug when we’ve got powers, Valenti.”

Michael’s expression was smug with enjoyment of his own brilliance as he looked at the puzzled faces round the table.

“Oh, I guess you mean you can…like…just create one out of the air?”

“No, of course not.” Michael frowned at Kyle, annoyed that he would risk revealing the secret of their new powers in front of a Liz who could no longer be trusted. “I mean we use our powers to track the vehicle by residual heat and gases from the exhaust. It’s cooler at night and heat will show up in the air easier than in the daytime. There won’t be many cars on the road at that time of night, so all we need to do is follow their trail and we’re home and dry – they won’t be expecting us if they don’t see us close behind them.”

“Oh, I see, Michael. Yes, that could work...we can make the heat trail glow in the dark if necessary.” Isobel was now prepared to be convinced. “We’d know where they are and it would give us more time to check out their base before we take out the guards and we rush in to rescue little Zan.”

“What if they go north to a motel instead? There’ll be a lot more cars around.”

Maria didn’t lose sight of the other main option – after all, it was her ass on the line here. Michael was quick to find arguments to reassure her.

“Basically, the same thing, although it won’t be so easy once they reach the main highway. We’ll have to wing it if that happens, but I really don’t think it will. I have a hunch it’ll be the compound. They’d need to keep it quiet if things got out of control with Tess and a motel isn’t the place for that. Plus, two hours drive into New York is far too long to risk it if anything going wrong. They need somewhere close by.”

“So, the summer cabin or compound really would be their best choice – and easier for us later tonight...”

“Who’s going to be paired up with who?” This was Liz, hit by a sudden thought.

“Me and Maria, of course. Iz and Kyle, you and–”

“Not Max. I won’t be paired up with Max Evans, so don’t even think about it. I’ll ride with Kyle.” She stared at Michael with wide brown eyes pleading for understanding. “Or – or Rath, even. Just not Max, okay?”

Michael raised a questioning eyebrow at Kyle, giving him the chance to refuse, but both of them knew that he wouldn’t say no to Liz over this. Kyle totally understood her reluctance to spend any time with Max Evans and so he swallowed his disappointment at missing out on partnering Isobel in the operation. Now that she had ‘seen’ her husband again, things were a tad strained between them, so maybe it was for the best.

“So, Iz, you ok teaming with Max?” Michael really wasn’t worried about this; Isobel would be overjoyed to spend time with her errant brother. Without waiting for her confirmation, he explained. “I don’t want anyone paired with the dupes, in case there’s trouble.”

There was a pause while everyone thought about the night ahead and then Liz’s stomach growled loudly, making the others laugh and breaking the tension.

“I’m so hungry. We’ve been talking for nearly an hour. Can’t we eat now before we finalize the rest of the plan?”

Maria quickly stood up and headed over to inspect the contents of the big freezer; she needed to do something to distract herself. With no thought of cooking from scratch tonight, she pulled out various cartons of Thai, Mexican and Italian food, piling them up on the counter ready to heat up in the microwave. Isobel went to help, finding dishes and utensils to set the table. Liz hesitated, uncertain whether an offer of help from her would be welcome, but then went to freshen up before dinner while Michael and Kyle watched TV in the living room.

When Isobel and Maria had freshened up, too, Michael went upstairs to tell Rath and Lonnie that dinner was ready. He had decided to let Max sleep on for as long as possible in order to conserve his strength, although whether this was a good idea with the guy’s mind under siege was more than Michael could guess.

Lonnie and Rath ignored the knock on their bedroom door and when he heard the loud, uninhibited sounds from inside the room he couldn’t blame them. He did find it momentarily disturbing, reminding him uncomfortably of the Tess-induced, almost incestuous, dreams he’d shared with Isobel when the little blonde bitch had first turned up and messed with their minds in her obsession with their supposed ‘destiny’. However, he’d never felt any kind of connection with his duplicate or Isobel’s physical double except dislike and acute distrust. Anyhow, they were only doing what he badly wanted to do with Maria, and of that he was jealous, so he abruptly put those thoughts out of his mind, left them to it and went back to join the others downstairs.

The food was ready and the delicious smells made everyone hungry except Maria who, after only a few bites, pushed the creamy pasta alfredo around her plate, hid it under a lettuce leaf and barely pretended to eat. She couldn’t even face dessert. Michael, however, didn’t seem to notice and helped himself liberally, as did Kyle, to sweet, spicy Thai chicken with fragrant rice as well as chilli-hot Mexican beef enchiladas with every sign of enjoyment, although his mind was preoccupied with making plans for when they found the Feds' hideout.

Once everyone had finished, Maria insisted the dishes were cleaned the human way, throwing everyone out of the kitchen while she did it. She found that the chance to be alone for a while was one she couldn’t pass up; her own company was all she craved right now.

Maria had almost finished when she felt Michael’s wordless question in her mind, the tentative nature of his mental touch a sign that, for once, he was worried about intruding on her thoughts. The snatched interlude of peace and quiet had calmed her down and although she was still nervous, she told herself that she really only had to deliver a message and Michael would protect her. So she sent reassurance right back, telling him that she’d just needed to be alone for a while – which she knew by now he of all people would understand – and that she’d be right out in just a few more minutes.

Just then the kitchen door opened and Liz slid in, closing it quietly behind her as she leaned against it, blocking Maria’s escape route.

Alone together for the first time since the attack, there was an uncomfortable silence between them. Maria simply waited and it was Liz who spoke, a frown drawing her brows together.

“Maria, sit down, we have to talk…”

“I know we do, but not now, Liz – it’s not the right moment with all this going on. We’ll talk some other time.”

Maria walked towards the door, but Liz held up her hand. The gesture was the same one she’d had used when she attacked before and Maria halted abruptly, wary but trying not to show it.

Apparently, Liz did not recall their last encounter because she spoke fast and urgently, desperately eager to convince Maria to listen to her.

“No, now or it’ll never be the right time. I saw you didn’t eat dessert and neither did I, so let’s break out the ice-cream like we always do…”

“Ice-cream? No. Ice-cream is for when best friends talk and I don’t get the feeling that you’ve been my friend for a while now.”

“I am, Maria, I am still your best friend – please don’t be so cold. I just couldn’t help myself. Max…well, I was just so hurt that he could do that to me after everything else. It all just got too much for me… just listen, hear me out– ”

“No, not right now. We will talk when this emergency is over, but right now I can’t deal–”

Just then the door opened suddenly, shoving Liz who stumbled into the room and steadied herself by clutching at Maria. Then they both turned to see Michael, responding to Maria’s distress at having to deal with an emotional Liz when all she could focus on was her coming ordeal as midnight rapidly approached. He knew that she didn’t need all this hassle when she was already getting nervous enough to panic at any provocation.

Michael frowned at them both, although he spoke silently to Maria trying to calm her down.

***You okay, princess? No need to worry about this one right now, she’ll keep until you’re ready to deal***

***Oh, thank you, Michael. My hero. You always seem to be riding to rescue me from Liz. I think I would have lost it if she’d got started on her feelings again. We really do need to talk soon, but its just sooo the wrong time to pick***

***Yeah, and I bet she talked about herself first, huh? Any sign of an apology for hurting you? No, didn’t think so. Anyhow, forget her, right now we got other things to do***

He had continued to frown at the two girls throughout the brief mental conversation and now he beckoned them to follow him into the sitting room.

“It’s time to find out just what is going on with the dupes…”

********

Chapter Sixty-Six

The rest of the group settled in the living room after re-arranging couches and chairs around the coffee table so that there would be room for Rath and Lonnie; meanwhile Michael climbed the stairs again and knocked loudly on the dupes’ bedroom door.

He’d decided that now was the time to make the two explain themselves before he decided if they could be trusted enough to join in the plan – although he was fully aware that they might not be willing to go along with it anyhow. They would be useful to have on his side, but he really didn’t care either way as long as they didn’t cause him any trouble.

This time there were no sounds at all from inside the room, and just for a moment he wondered if they’d taken off now that Tess wasn’t around. Then, as he recalled that they’d claimed she had to die before they could be free of the deep mind-warp, the door flew open and a naked Rath confronted him, his expression amused and knowing. Lonnie was sitting up in the rumpled bed, the sheet barely covering her nude body, wearing a mocking smile.

“Finally got to the action, Bro? Lonnie and me was wondrin’ when we’d get our invite to the party.”

“Yeah, lover, be right with ya…”

Lonnie popped her gum with a wink at Michael as Rath shut the door in his face.

Taking that as agreement, he went to rouse Max with some difficulty from a deep sleep and finally had to slap him into full consciousness before helping him downstairs to join the others in the living room still bright in the summer evening light.

Maria and Liz were sharing a couch, although sitting as far apart as possible. Michael joined his girlfriend to wait for the dupes, privately telling her that he thought Max’s condition had deteriorated even more despite the extra sleep. He was immediately sorry he’d mentioned it when he felt her nervousness increase and he pulled her close against his side, silently telling her everything would be fine and trying to soothe her fears. He caught a vivid flash of memory from Maria as she contrasted his concern now with the first time they’d been alone together waiting for news of Max and Liz’s meeting with Riverdog when she had told him to ‘be a guy’ and make her feel better. That had led to their first kiss and the long roller-coaster ride until their final surrender to each other, now sealed by the unique mental connection.

Liz, while trying to avoid staring at Max, noticed the two share a secret smile; she looked acutely uncomfortable, moving even further away, carefully avoiding any physical contact with Michael.

Meanwhile, Max had sat down beside Isobel on the opposite couch. Despite their differences, it tore at her battered heart to see him in such a weakened state and she took his hand comfortingly, trying to send him some of her own strength. To their mutual surprise, a faint glow appeared around their joined hands as Isobel felt the tug of energy draining from her while Max felt a surge of clean power flow into him, making him feel stronger and more alert than he had for days. Nobody else appeared to notice this and neither sibling said anything aloud, just exchanged a look of quiet shock and an uncertain smile.

Kyle still appeared to be engrossed in the sports channel; Michael’s attention shifted to this, too, as the minutes ticked by. The others simply waited, lost in their own thoughts.

Finally a door slammed, then loud footsteps descended the stairs and approached along the hall until Lonnie and Rath appeared in the archway, mocking grins on their familiar features. Both swaggered arrogantly across to take the empty chairs and stare challengingly around at the others, who stared right back in open curiosity.

Michael frowned at both the New York aliens for a long moment and then, with characteristic directness, jumped right into the issue without any preamble.

“Looks to me like you haven’t been straight with us… ”

“Huh? Just whaddaya sayin’?”

Rath reacted instantly without thought, angry and defensive, jumping to his feet and backing towards the archway, his right hand raised high in apparent readiness to attack.

Michael stood too, moving quickly away from the group to draw any fire to himself. He didn’t want to take the chance that they would be in any danger from crossfire if his theory was wrong and Rath did still have powers. He was a little thrown by the instant reaction when he had expected Rath to be a harder nut to crack, so he stayed watchful and controlled, in stark contrast to the nervous agitation in his physical counterpart facing him from across the living room.

Lonnie didn’t move from her relaxed position and continued to watch Michael with all her attention.

“I’m sayin’ you’re gonna tell us the truth now.”

“You callin’ me a liar, dude? Know that I’ve killed humans for less. S’only 'cuz yer family that’s stoppin’ me from off’n ya right now, but don’t push me...”

Rath’s voice rose in threat and Michael’s lips curled slightly in a cold smile.

“That never stopped you before – so go ahead, try to kill me. I don’t think you can…”

The two men stared each other out; the silence stretched into a long minute as they all waited for Rath’s response. The dupe’s gaze fell first and he suddenly turned away, shrugging his shoulders in defeat and retreating to lean sulkily against the wall.

The girl who shared Isobel’s likeness sighed heavily and sent her lover a contemptuous glance, waving him back to his seat. Beckoning Michael to do likewise, Lonnie’s attention focused on him again.

“There’s no point in denying it now, is there?” She sent another brief, icy glare at Rath, who flinched, before she returned her sultry, faintly mocking gaze to Michael. “So you’ve guessed our secret. What gave us away?”

Her curiosity seemed genuinely piqued, but Michael ignored it, simply waiting for her to go on speaking which, after a long pause, she did.

“We lost our powers – but we don’t know how it happened…”

Lonnie’s voice trembled for a moment and her expression was suddenly unguarded; she looked lost and vulnerable as she admitted the truth. Then she pulled herself together and continued to speak in the cold, hard voice that no longer betrayed the softer feelings that she had not willingly revealed.

“Yeah, well, it’s true that some Fed grunt started askin’ questions in the ’hood – but it was about two, three months ago, not weeks like we told ya. When you got here we was watchin’ our backs cuz trouble already found us. Back in the day we didn’t pay no real mind to the Feds ‘cuz we got the place locked down real tight and nobody talks to strangers, anyhow... Still, some lowlife scum must have broken the rules this time and when I find out who…ain’t gonna be pretty.”

Her lovely face reflected malevolent anticipation for a moment and Isobel, watching closely, felt a stab of nausea and guilt. The original Vilandra must have been a real piece of work, and Isobel privately gave thanks that whoever had re-designed her own Antarian genes hadn’t included any of the sick pleasure in torment that her duplicate was displaying.

When Lonnie paused, Rath roused himself from his sulk to take up the story. He addressed himself to Maria, appearing to feel that she was the most sympathetic listener of the group, although currently her expression was as cold as Michael’s own.

“Last memory me and Lonnie have from that time is leavin’ a club one mornin’ and findin’…someone…waiting in the alley. Figure we musta been drugged somehow. Next we woke up, it was still mornin’ in the same alley but we’d lost more’n a month out of time. All we got to show for it is no more powers and a scar each…look.”

He turned his head and pushed back the hair behind his right ear to display a small, white scar to Liz sitting closest to him. She stared at it with scientific interest, while Lonnie unexpectedly leaned forward to show a similar scar to Max, who looked startled, then frowned at the blemish in vague concern. It was clear that his thoughts had been elsewhere, although Michael noticed that he looked more healthy and alert than he had at anytime since the previous evening. He thought hopefully that the extra sleep had maybe done Max some good after all. Meanwhile Liz was examining his dupe’s scar with deep interest.

“It must be an implant of some kind, something that inhibits or maybe even destroys your powers.”

Maria noticed Michael, Isobel and Kyle all flinched involuntarily at her comment, but Liz was fascinated and, without thinking, reached out to touch the scar with a gentle fingertip until Rath’s mocking voice recalled her to herself.

“Yeah, guess we already figured that one out for ourselves.”

Rath smirked lewdly at her but it was plain that this was just an automatic response to any female attention, as his mind was clearly on his own troubles now. His expression had darkened with rage at the memories and Michael quickly urged him to continue his story.

“What did you do then?”

“Nuthin’. What could we do when we had no real clue about who or what or why? Was easy to keep it a secret ’cuz we mostly never used our powers openly in the ’hood. Anyhow, like Lonnie said, we got it locked down tight so nobody questions us. Then Tess turned up about three weeks ago and dragged us off here to be her bodyguards.”

“Does she know you’ve lost your powers?”

“Nah. Never needed to use ’em yet. The Queen told us to keep a low profile around here, which was damn lucky for us, and she thought we was just obeying orders.”

“Why didn’t you tell her? Maybe she could have helped since her powers were enhanced on Antar…”

“Don’t trust the little bitch – if we was no longer useful to her she’d kill us without a second thought.”

There was a moment of silence as everyone privately agreed; then Lonnie spoke up again, glancing slyly at Max from the corner of her eye.

“We kinda hoped that King Zan would do the Royal healing thing for us, but soon as he arrived we knew that was gonna be a bus to nowhere, too. His Majesty’s ‘kingly’ moods were unpredictable – he barely even noticed we were around but he was real hostile when he did.”

“Why stay?”

Michael’s blunt question seemed to take her by surprise, but she recovered and answered him coolly enough.

“We knew Tess and Max were planning to use you to work the Antarian ritual…”

Max’s ears turned red and he shifted uncomfortably under the stony glares of Michael and the others, but said nothing. He had no defence – he had been willing to sacrifice the safety of his family and friends to save his baby son and nothing could change that.

“…and we think maybe there’s a chance it can heal us, too…”

Lonnie’s quiet statement surprised them all and heads turned to Michael but his expression was unreadable as his glance swept over the others sitting around the coffee table waiting for his response to what was clearly a reluctant plea from the normally arrogant and intimidating New York aliens…

He weighed the options, aware of the torrent of Maria’s emotions flowing somewhere at the edge of his mind, but he was careful not to let his instinctive agreement with her hotly felt opposition sway him in this. He needed his own cold judgement to decide if the dupes, with or without powers, were to be useful in the dangerous game ahead of them. He decided to be blunt.

“I don’t trust either of you, but I’ll make a deal. Help us rescue the kid and if you’re on the level then we’ll help you, too. Deal?”

The two dupes exchanged a brief glance. Rath nodded.

“Deal, bro. What d’ya want us to do?”

Michael didn’t answer the question directly. He looked round at everyone and finally stated aloud what they’d all come to realize over the course of the day.

“I guess it’s clear to us all by now that Tess isn’t going to reappear tonight. We have to face it - it’s most likely she was captured when she left the motel this morning. The Feds delivered the note addressed to Tess way after that so, assuming they didn’t know we were here until then, the message must really be for Max. I don’t know why they didn’t just say that. In any case, they will most probably be after all of us now they know where we are.”

The others, particularly Isobel and Maria, looked apprehensive, but the knowledge was no surprise to any of them.

“Maybe they want to keep us guessing. Maybe they want to play with us before they go in for the kill. Who the hell knows? The only thing that matters is that they. Have. My. Son.”

Max's voice rose until he was almost shouting, clearly impatient and desperate to keep the group focused on the rescue plan. Michael looked at him, then at Maria, and slowly nodded.

“Okay, it doesn’t change anything. We still go after the kid, except that Maria won’t have to pretend to be Tess.”

He caught the flash of relief that echoed his own, but then he felt her resolve harden again and she argued the point.

“Someone still has to actually meet them, find out what they want. It still should be me. I’m the least valuable to them and they must know that by now.”

Michael’s fierce denial was reinforced by his fist slamming down on the coffee table, drowning out the other loud protests from Isobel and Kyle. Max and Liz agreed, too, but in a slightly muted tone, as if they were maybe not quite so convinced that Maria was wrong. The dupes just looked bored.

Jumping up from the couch, Michael hauled an unresisting Maria along by a tight grip on her wrist, dragging her out into the hall and into the kitchen for some privacy.

Five minutes later, they returned to the group. It was clear that there had been a fight and neither had given in. To Isobel and Max, it was obvious that Michael was hiding his emotions just as hard as he ever had in the old days, his face blank and his dark eyes hard and unreadable. Maria looked flushed and unhappy, but stubbornly determined to carry out her chosen mission.

Michael, as he spread out the map on the coffee table and went over the route again, giving orders and assigning the teams to their surveillance areas, suddenly sounded like the warrior he was created to be.

“Okay, we play along with their demand for a meeting until we find out where they’re hiding. We’ll keep in touch by cell, without using names. Just give directions north or south. They have to pass one of us and then we’ll all close in to follow them. After that we regroup and plan our attack when we know the lie of the land.”

He didn’t mention the part of the plan involving tracking the kidnappers back to their lair by the heat trail. No need to spill everything to the dupes who might still turn out to be enemies.

The waiting was hard on them all, Maria especially, and she soon withdrew from the silent tensions in the sitting room where nobody was really watching the TV, to the window seat in the dining room with her radio, trying to distract herself by getting lost among the music stations as time crawled towards midnight.

As the hours passed and the light outside faded to dusk, her chaotic thoughts wouldn’t let her mind rest. It relentlessly replayed the coming ordeal and all the possible horrific outcomes and she had quickly closed her mind to Michael’s probing, telling him sharply to back off and leave her alone, although her real anger was against herself for the feelings of jealousy and fear that she couldn’t control and didn’t want him to see.

Curled up in the shadows, all her old insecurities came back to haunt her and she relived the worst moments of her life – her father leaving, Michael and Isobel sharing the Tess-induced dreams and later Michael's ambiguous episode with Courtney.
Then there were the more recent heartbreaking changes: leaving her mom alone with no explanation; the loss of her friendship with Liz and, finally, the admission she least wanted to acknowledge – her jealousy of Liz and Kyle developing alien powers while she was left struggling behind once again.

It was shaming to admit that she was ready to risk her life just to prove to Liz – no, in truth, to herself – that she wasn’t a liability to the group, that she wasn’t worthless and stupid just because she was still wholly human.

Maria never found it easy to cry. Life had taught her early that only abject despair was worth her tears; in her world, the only answer to lesser torments was always to fight back. This time the wetness on her cheeks and the taste of salt on her lips took her by surprise and she gave herself up to weeping with something approaching guilt at the relief it brought her.

The shock, when a hand touched her shoulder and the sweet scent of flowers enveloped her, made her jump and choke off a scream of fright even as she recognised Isobel’s signature perfume.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you. What’s wrong? Is it the fight with Michael? Don’t worry, he feels just as bad as you about it, even if he won’t admit it…”

Maria shook her head violently and snuffled as her sobs subsided. Hunting in her pack for tissues to mop up her tears, she tried to get herself together and not make any more of a fool of herself in front of the immaculate Isobel, who now sat beside her on the cushioned window seat and unexpectedly slid a comforting arm around her shoulder.

“If it’s the meeting thing, you really don’t have to go through with it. You may be less valuable to the FBI as a human, but believe me you’re invaluable to us. We can’t lose you, Maria. It isn’t just Michael who would be lost without you… I just don’t know if I’d get through this if you weren’t around to be my friend.”

At this, Maria’s tears welled up again and, to her horror, she suddenly heard herself pouring out to the alien girl beside her all her shameful feelings of jealous inferiority because she didn’t have powers like her childhood human friends.

When the breathless torrent of words stopped, there was an embarrassed silence from the smaller girl for a long moment before Isobel, voice ragged with emotion, finally managed to put her own feelings into words.

“You know, it’s so stupid, almost beyond tragic – here you are a human jealous of alien powers when I would give mine away to you in a heartbeat. I’ve spent my whole life longing to be human, hating that I was different, being jealous of the whole world… I was so desperate I even tried to live the lie and look where it got us... On the run for our lives, not even knowing what’s happening to our families.”

Bitterness crept into her tone and Maria sighed in sympathy. Huddled together in the darkness somehow made it easier to share secrets and confidences.

“I guess I always understood that about you – I mean the feeling of being different from everyone else, because I feel that way, too. Once I got used to the idea, I never really envied you those powers, you know. They just seemed to me to be useful talents to have although with all the trouble Michael had controlling his, maybe I wasn’t always convinced…”

She laughed a little, shakily, and Isobel joined in.

“I will admit they are useful and – when it comes right down to it – I’m not so certain I wouldn’t miss them if they disappeared. It’s the danger they bring down on us that I really hate…”

“With you on that one, chica. Still,” Maria continued, more easily now that she’d spoken her most shameful confession aloud, “that’s not the main issue for me right now. I’m – I’m jealous of Liz and Kyle having powers…well, really just Liz, if I’m honest. I’m happy for Kyle having powers because he enjoys them so much, like a little kid in a candy store…”

It was Isobel’s turn to laugh with soft affection.

“Yeah, he so does…”

Maria became serious again and continued her thought.

“It’s just – why Liz, why not me? I mean, don’t get me wrong – I don’t want to get shot and almost die. I don’t. It just makes me feel like I’m still the outsider, still different from everyone else…still not good enough.”

“Liz doesn’t think so – Liz was jealous of you, remember? So jealous that she actually hurt you. It seems to me that a big part of her breakdown was because you now have everything she expected would be hers – her life fell apart when we ran, but it’s you who held us all together and made it bearable… You and Michael have surprised us all.”

“That’s down to Michael, not me. He’s the one who protected us, kept us all together and safe.”

“He has – but it’s not all down to Michael. Haven’t you been listening? None of us, even Michael, would have got this far if it wasn’t for you, Maria. We are all so lucky that you chose to be with him. You belong with us. Believe it.”

There was a long silence while Isobel waited. Finally there was a soft sigh through the darkness and Maria’s head subsided heavily onto her shoulder.

“Okay, I’ll try…”

“You’ll do more than try or you’ll have me on your case, okay?”

Isobel sounded so threatening that Maria had to giggle and immediately felt better than she had for days.

The two girls exchanged a long hug, sealing their friendship on a deep level neither would ever have believed possible back in the Roswell days.

Maria pulled away first, looking at her watch.

“Nearly time to go, I guess. I’m still scared, but I feel a lot better now. Thanks, Izzy.”

“Anytime. Now go make peace with Michael, while I collect Max ready for our stake-out.”

“How’s he doing? Michael said he wasn’t looking so good when he woke him up earlier.”

Isobel hesitated, but then realized that there wasn’t any need for secrecy from Maria.

“He’s better than he was, I think – when we sat together waiting for the dupes I took his hand and some of my energy flowed through to him. It was weird, and it’s never happened before, but it felt right, somehow. For a few minutes he was my little brother again, like he hasn’t been for a long time. I know he behaved badly to all of us, but it hasn’t all been his fault. It’s been hard on him, too.”

Maria smiled at her as they left the dining room together but didn’t reply as they headed back down the hall to join the others. Anything that comforted the alien girl was good in her book, even if she had private reservations about how much Max really deserved his sister’s rush to forgive his past behavior.

In the sitting room, Michael was waiting with the others and she could feel his impatience through their connection, along with the undercurrents of fear and excitement that colored the stream of his emotions. He was still angry with her, she could tell, but it was mixed with worry for her safety and it made her feel guilty about snapping angrily at him when he’d only been concerned about her despite their argument.

He was now the one who was reluctant to open their connection to her tentative probe and she knew it would take a little while before his stubborn pride accepted her overtures for peace. However, their connection granted them both the reassurance that no argument, however bad, could ever destroy their love for each other and deep in their minds, underlying the current hostility, this knowledge gave both of them a tiny, warm glow.

As soon as Maria walked back through the arch and saw Michael’s scowl, their faint connection flared into full contact and she walked straight into his arms, oblivious of the others in the room.

***I’m sorry, Michael. I was angry with myself and needed to be alone, but I was wrong to take it out on you…***

His anger melted away in the warmth of her contrition and the feel of her arms around him. He couldn’t maintain it, anyway, knowing what danger she was about to face.

***Whatever. ’S long as you’re ok now, then we’re good, princess. I guess I owe Iz big for taking the heat off me…***

***Don’t push your luck, Spaceboy…***

The others only saw Michael and Maria make up as quickly and easily as they’d started their fight and since there was nothing unusual about that, there was a general feeling of relief that it was over and the real action was about to start at last.

By this time it was dark outside. After a quick re-cap of the plan, Rath and Lonnie left first, heading out in the SUV to the road that lead out towards the state highway. Kyle and Liz quickly followed in the van – Isobel had naturally commandeered the Chevy – and set off to Taylor Street Park ready to run backup from as close a vantage point as they could find.

Isobel hugged both Maria and Michael before setting off with Max south towards the lake road junction to wait for the call and follow the heat trail.

By 11.30 the house was deserted as the teams had scattered to go to their stakeout positions.

At the park entrance, Michael pulled the now black pick-up a few yards to the south and switched off the engine. There were no other vehicles in sight (he guessed Kyle and Liz must have found a spot across the street in an office lot) and the area was dark and deserted.

Maria was sitting beside him, her arms wrapped nervously around her stomach, looking and feeling as if she was going to throw up any minute. He couldn’t stand to see her like that and he had another flash of anger with her for stubbornly putting herself in danger. Well, he just wasn’t going to let that happen.

***You’re not going to do this alone, Maria. I’m gonna be right there with you***

Maria immediately turned on him, furious.

***No way, Michael. What is the point of me doing this, if you’re just going to set yourself up as an easy target? Why not just surrender yourself right now?***

***Because I’m not going to hide behind my girlfriend when there’s danger. I swore to myself I was going to protect you at all costs and I will***

She tried to fight off his embrace, but he easily overcame her struggles and wrapped her in his arms where she subsided and laid her head on his shoulder.

***You planned this all along, didn’t you?***

***Yeah, of course I did, Blondie. Think I’d really let you go up against them by yourself? If I could get away with it, I’d lock you in the truck but I guess you’d never stop chewing my ear about it***

***You guess right. I told you that whatever happens in our future we’ll be in it together***

***Yeah, for better or worse, I guess***

***Is that a proposal, Spaceboy?***

Michael was startled for a moment. Then she felt him grin as he realized what he’d said.

***When – I mean, if – IF I decide to propose to you someday, you’ll know. I’ll make it very, very clear…***

She giggled into his kiss, amused and deeply touched at his response to her teasing. Although they were bound together forever, it was nice to know that he saw a wedding somewhere in their future…

As they drew apart, the sound of an engine approaching from the north came through the open window on the still night air.

Maria swallowed hard and bit her lip, before reaching for Michael’s hand. She found she was frozen with sudden fear but he was already focused on the oncoming vehicle.

They waited as a big, black SUV slowed to a halt outside the park entrance, stopping across the street. It sat there for a few minutes and then, at the stroke of midnight, the passenger door opened and a large, dark-suited man stepped out and walked slowly towards them, stopping about twenty feet away in the middle of the street. Maria thought it was the same guy who had delivered the message that morning, but she couldn’t be sure.

Michael squeezed her hand and told her silently to keep close behind him; he opened the door and she slid across and out after him. Resting a hand on his back – she surprised herself with an inappropriate quiver of lust at how big and muscular he was – she stood close behind him. She could feel his tension – a mixture of fear, anger and excitement. He was on a hair trigger, ready to blast the guy with his powers at the first sign something was wrong.

Both sides faced off, waiting for the other to make the first move, and that was what belatedly warned Michael that something was wrong. The enemy had no reason to wait… The agent’s eyes flickered to stare over Michael’s shoulder into the park behind him and the alien just had time to grab Maria and push her to the ground beneath him when a dull pain exploded in his side and darkness closed in.

Maria’s scream echoed off the steel and glass buildings in the starlit night as she struggled out from under Michael’s heavy body and tried frantically to gather him into her arms, kissing him and calling his name over and over.

Then a second truck arrived and two more black-clad figures lifted Michael roughly away from her and carried him over to it, loading him into the rear seats without much concern for his comfort.

They didn’t seem to notice or object when she ran to the other door and climbed in beside his unconscious body, hugging him protectively and bunching his sweatshirt to try to stem the blood that was leaking from the wound in his side.

The vehicle moved off, gaining speed, and instinct made her raise her head to look out of the rear window, belatedly remembering Kyle and Liz and hoping they had seen what happened and were following behind in the van. She couldn’t tell, but when she turned back towards Michael, her shocked mind reeled for a moment as his familiar face smiled at her from the front passenger seat. She blinked.

Not Michael.

Rath.

********

Chapter Sixty-Seven

In the shadows of an off-road parking spot with a good view of the Taylor Street/Lakeside Lane junction, Isobel and Max were sitting in the darkened Chevy in uncomfortable silence. Neither wanted to talk, mostly because there wasn’t really any place to start that wouldn’t lead to an argument.

Isobel, despite her loyal defence of Max to Maria earlier, found that now she was finally alone with him she wasn’t so ready to forgive the pain he’d caused his friends and family. While they stared out at the eerie light from the waning moon that banished true darkness, she felt angry and sad that they had so easily lost the closeness they’d shared all their lives but looking back, she thought that it really was more his fault than hers.

The issue that had first opened her eyes to the selfish side of his character was his blind, arrogant opposition to any kind of independence for her, any attempt to escape from his cosy little alien chain-gang. Antarian Royal genes or not, it was a part of his character that he’d seemed to accept easily with no reluctance or guilt.

He’d coldly sabotaged her bid for freedom when she’d tried to move away to college after Alex died and that had diminished the unconditional love and trust she’d always given him until then. The memory still made her furious and resentful even after all this time. Looking back, she knew that had been her first and last genuine chance of a real, human life and for that she couldn’t ever forgive him.

The lie that destroyed her marriage was another attempt at rebellion and escape, but she couldn’t blame Max entirely for that. She was the one who insisted on going through with it. He had been totally and – she still considered – unfairly against telling Jesse about her origins but in the end he’d been supportive and even talked their parents into attending her hurried wedding. After that they’d quickly drifted apart, rarely seeing each other outside each alien-related crisis up to the final days in Roswell. She had to admit that was as much her fault as his – her marriage, before and during its crisis, had absorbed all her attention.

Then the obsession with contacting his son on Antar had led to Liz, of all people, being arrested for holding up a store with a gun. There were other, creepier, incidents along the way that she’d heard about second-hand through Michael or Maria.

Still, her brother's behavior to Michael had been uncaring and selfish – moving in to his apartment without paying his share (oh, but she’d been guilty of turning a blind eye to that, herself) so he could stay in school and even plan on college. Looking back, she could see that Max had cost Michael his chance to graduate because he had been forced to work at two jobs to pay the bills as well as try to catch up with his studies.

Isobel was building up a good head of steam until she looked at her brother brooding beside her. His weirdly distorted features were still recognisably human. She closed her eyes against the sudden rush of pity for him and suddenly it hit her that he, too, must be very lonely, underneath all the recent arrogance and self-absorption he’d displayed.

She reminded herself that not all of his judgement calls had been bad. He hadn’t deliberately set out to hurt anyone and, although he’d made some selfish decisions, he wasn’t alone in that – which of their little group hadn’t at one time or another? Most of the time he’d done his best as he saw it.

The ‘white room’ torture, and later that insanely weird body/mind transfer with the old Metachem guy Clayton, was enough to send anyone more than a little crazy. But finding, then giving up, his baby son was what had hurt him the deepest.

Tess had used this to her advantage when she needed him to help find little Zan. She knew that Max would always put his son’s safety first despite giving the child away for adoption and that only have been the reason he had abandoned them all – even his other obsession, Liz – to race to her side.

Isobel recalled the strange dreams that she and Kyle had – unintentionally – shared with Max when they had first run from their enemies. Dreams she had no doubt that Tess had somehow engineered to confuse and entice Max into her scheme not only to regain their son but maybe King Max himself…

Max’s quiet voice broke into her thoughts and she turned her head again to look at him warily in the dimness.

“Where did we lose each other, Isobel?”

The unexpected question surprised her and, perversely, considering her sympathetic thoughts of a moment ago, annoyed her a little. Her voice was colder than she knew when she replied.

“I’ve just been asking myself the same thing. I think it was when you wouldn’t let me tell Jesse what I am that finally did it... You never even cared about my feelings – it was all about the safety of the group then. It seemed to me so wrong that you could choose to be open with Liz, who went straight out and told Maria and Alex our secret, when I wasn’t allowed that freedom too. I had to make a choice between you and I chose him.”

“I guess I can see why, now. I couldn’t or wouldn’t at the time – I told myself you were being headstrong and selfish when too many people knew our secret and danger was always out there. I never accepted that you could want to make a life outside Roswell and leave me behind, when all I wanted was for everyone to stay together. I really thought we were safer that way. I’m sorry, Izzy.”

Isobel simply nodded in the darkness. She couldn’t bring herself to react, uncertain whether she would hug him or hit him for his admission. He continued to pour out his confession; unable to stop now he’d started and uncannily echoing her own thoughts.

“I should apologise to Michael, too. I think maybe I’ve finally run out of time, so I have no choice. My powers are uncertain and if anything… goes wrong, then I need you to tell Michael this for me, okay?”

Isobel nodded again. The power of speech seemed to have deserted her.

“I – this is hard for me to say, but I – I deliberately made it hard for him to turn his life around, to graduate – I did it because I was jealous. Liz wasn’t in any big hurry to forgive and forget that I’d had feelings for Tess and acted on them. You were giving Jesse all your attention and Michael was starting to grow up, making new human friends – my God, I never figured Michael of all people with friends – and making plans for a future life with Maria that would probably take him away from Roswell. Tess had taken my son beyond reach and I didn’t want to lose my second-in-command as well as my sister.”

He took a deep, shaky breath.

“I –I didn’t want to be left alone. I needed everyone to stay real close, not just for me but for our group safety…”

Isobel took a deep breath but before she could reply her cell phone warbled softly and she quickly reached to answer it. Max pulled himself together, leaned in and heard Kyle’s urgent voice clearly. In his panic, the sheriff’s son had obviously forgotten the agreement not to use names.

“Isobel, it’s me, Kyle. The enemy’s here and Michael’s down – a shot from the park, I think, and it looks bad. I’m going in…Maria needs help.”

“No, don’t, Kyle. We’re on our way, be with you in a few. Stay where you are until we get there – you can’t help Maria alone and we can’t risk losing you, too. Okay? We’re on our way to back you up.”

She nodded at Max who had already started the engine. Kyle’s voice sounded in her ear again and as she listened she placed her hand on Max’s arm, signalling him to pull the truck back from the road.

“Isobel, wait. Stay where you are for the moment, there’s another truck…two men in black combats getting out.”

There was a pause and she could hear his breathing slow down; she knew he was forcing himself to get a grip on his emotions. His voice was under control when he next spoke.

“They’re taking Michael over to the truck – oh, God, no – Maria’s gone after him… Now it’s pulling away. Can you hear me? Isobel?”

Isobel forced herself out of her shock and to speak calmly.

“ I hear you, Kyle. Which way did they go?”

“South, heading towards you. Two big trucks, Michael and Maria are in the second one. Liz and me, we’re following but not too close. I don’t think they’ve seen us yet, we’re not using the lights.”

Isobel relayed the information to Max.

“Two trucks. They’ll be here in a few minutes, Max – give them time to get out of sight then pull out after them.”

Max looked at her in amazement.

“Out of sight? Are you crazy? We’re going to be right behind them with our shields up. We can’t risk losing them or we won’t know where they’ll take Michael and Maria.”

“Max, stop. Listen. Michael has a plan and we should go with it– ”

“Michael’s down and it’s up to me, now. I’m still the king and I’m responsible for our safety.”

“You may be king, Your Majesty, but Michael’s our leader now.”

Max stared at his sister incredulously, barely able to believe his ears. She watched the arrogance of Antarian Royalty sweep over her brother’s distorted features.

“Isobel, he’s my second-in-command. You know he was only leader in my unavoidable absence. Now I’m ready to take it back. No arguments – we’re wasting time. We may already be too late – here they come now. Hang on.”

“No, you’re the one wasting time arguing. I told you, Max, Michael has it covered.”

Isobel raised her hand and the engine died, stalling the Chevy’s nose almost out onto the road to Max’s impotent fury as the two trucks sped by to separate at the junction, each going in the opposite direction.

“Kyle and Liz are almost here now. Trust me. We’ll follow the enemy’s heat trail in a few.”

At that moment, the Volkswagen van pulled up next to them and Kyle got out, running over to Isobel’s window and talking fast.

“Okay, I’m sure they finally saw us. They’ve been overtaking each other and we lost track of which one has our guys in it. One turned left onto the lake road and the other turned right. We’ll have to split up to tail them.”

Max opened his door and jumped out, calling out angrily to Kyle over his shoulder as he hurried back towards the van.

“Valenti, you ride with Isobel and I’ll ride with Liz. That way you’ve each got a full-powered alien protector…”

Kyle shrugged.

“As Your Royal Asshole commands – jerk. Sorry, Isobel, I know he’s your brother and all but what bug has crawled up his ass this time?”

“I agree he’s being a real pain right now. He wants to take the leadership back and blow off Michael’s plan. To think I was about to let peace break out between us.”

She shook her head in disgust then quickly followed her brother the few feet over to the van and spoke through the open window, ignoring Liz who was sitting there like a rabbit in the headlights with a look of dazed shock and horror on her face.

“No way is this over yet, little brother, you just wait… It’s Michael we should worry about right now.”

Max had the grace to look guilty at that but Isobel didn’t give him a chance to speak. She looked past him at Liz, this time registering the girl’s expression.

“Liz, what’s wrong? Ride with me if you can’t take Max’s brand of entertaining company…”

Liz woke up from her trance at the alien girl’s comment, then jumped eagerly out of the van, grateful for the offer.

“Um, thank you, Isobel.” She lowered her voice to a strained whisper. “I can’t be alone with him right now – I’m not ready to deal, not yet…and, oh God, Mi-Michael’s been shot…” Her eyes filled with tears and her lips trembled. “Maria…”

Isobel was reluctant to let Max out of her sight while his mood was so volatile but practical common sense forced her to admit that Liz shouldn’t ride with Max anyway. Neither, for different reasons, was currently capable of identifying a molecular heat trail. She saw Kyle beckoning impatiently from the Chevy’s driving seat. The sight of his annoyed expression made her grin. She felt grounded again just by seeing his face and hurried over to him, the sense of relief washing over her like cool, refreshing rain on a parched desert, despite her own desperate fear for Michael and Maria.

“C’mon, Isobel, let’s go. We haven’t got all night. The trail’s getting cold.”

“Still time. It’s less than two minutes since they passed us. Listen, Kyle, Liz will have to ride with me – she and Max just aren’t up to finding the heat trail by themselves. She doesn’t know how and his powers are weak. You and I will have to do that.”

Kyle muttered something extremely rude under his breath and slid out of the truck to stomp over and join Max.

“Okay. Fine. Evans, I’ll drive. Move over and let’s go. We’ll take the right-hand fork.”

Max gave a growl of protest at finding himself stuck with a hostile Kyle Valenti when he’d planned to get Liz to himself, but he quickly slid into the passenger seat and Kyle pulled away, tyres screeching loudly in the midnight silence.

Liz was already in the Chevy’s passenger seat and Isobel climbed into the driver’s seat this time. The engine started easily, despite the earlier stall she’d induced, and she pulled out onto the road without using the headlights. She couldn’t see the heat trail with those powerful twin beams lighting the way.

Concentrating, she narrowed her eyes and focused her enhanced abilities on the dark tree-shaded road ahead. Michael had been right – it was possible to make out a faintly glowing trail in the shadowy night if she looked hard enough. Moonlight filtered patchily through the gloom but the bright sparks of heat were still easy to follow. She speeded up and the trail became more distinct as she began to close the distance between the Chevy and their quarry, although Isobel was still careful to keep back out of sight.

A few minutes later, Isobel’s cell phone buzzed and Liz answered it. After she spoke briefly, she reported the conversation.

“That was Max. He says that Kyle has picked up the trail no problem and I told him that we have, too.”

Liz reverted back to silence. The shock of seeing Michael hurt – or worse – had sent her into a daze of sick terror and then Maria… The thought of her friend in the enemy’s hands was too hard to bear… She tried to block the thoughts of Max’s ordeal in the White Room that kept appearing in her mind with chilling clarity. Fear, guilt and despair twisted her stomach into knots and she concentrated fiercely on the glittering trail ahead of them.

Kyle and Max drove in silence, too.

At first Max had been confused and royally pissed about the way Isobel had so quickly bounced him into following her orders and carrying out Michael’s plan, but a few minutes of thought made him reluctantly realize that his sister was right.

Shocked at the news of Michael’s capture, his ego had taken over, without thought or reason, because the leadership was rightly his as King. Now, as they drove down the dark road, apparently following some invisible trail that only Kyle could see, he was ashamed to realize that he’d behaved like a selfish idiot once again even after his conscience-stricken confessions to Isobel only a few minutes ago. Still, he didn’t want to think about all that right now and so he divided his attention between the dark road ahead and Kyle, watching with doubtful curiosity as the Buddhist ex-jock apparently somehow tracked the enemy who now had Michael and Maria as well as his baby son.

Kyle’s dry, sarcastic voice broke the silence.

“If you're watching me because I’m pretty than I'm flattered, but if you have a moment to spare maybe you could phone Isobel to tell her I’ve found the trail?”

Max scrambled to do it, biting his tongue against a sharp retort, knowing it wasn’t wise to antagonise Valenti any more than he already had if they wanted to get through the night ahead without a fight.

When he’d delivered the message to Liz, whose cold little voice over the phone stabbed him in the heart, he remembered the dupes waiting somewhere back north on Taylor Street and asked Kyle if they knew what had happened.

“Good point. Liz and I forgot about them. I guess you’d better tell them to come south to the junction and wait there until we know where the enemy is holed up, then we’ll all meet up somewhere to make plans.”

Max chose to call Lonnie; her voice over the phone emphasised the rough New York accent.

“Yeah, whassup? Somethin’ wrong?”

Max told her what had happened and there was a pause while she shifted her gum before she replied, sounding cool and barely interested.

“Chill, dude, we’re on our way.”

Almost as soon as he broke the connection, the cell phone rang again, this time with Liz’s tense, almost excited voice on the other end.

“Max, we’ve found them – tell Kyle to come back and meet us about four miles past the Taylor Street junction. Drive on past the property with the big white gates at the entrance. We’ll be waiting about half a mile further down the road, okay?”

“Okay. Kyle says to tell you we’ll collect Michael's truck from the Taylor Street Park and tell the the dupes we're on our way. Oh, Liz…”

“What, Max?”

“Just – take care of yourself…”

She broke the connection at once without replying.

Twenty minutes later, all four vehicles were parked together in a line on the side of the road.

The door to the SUV opened and Lonnie stepped out.

"Don't wait for Rath - he's got business elsewhere..."

The moonlight revealed the gun she held casually in her hand...

********

Chapter Sixty-Eight

Isobel stared in horrified suspicion as Lonnie approached the little group waiting beside the van.

“What’s going on? Why the gun? Oh, my God, it was you who shot Michael…”

Her right hand rose instinctively, powers instantly ready to protect her friends or kill her murderous dupe. Lonnie didn’t flinch.

“Chill, girl, I ain’t the enemy. Got a dead one in back, though. Sorry I didn’t got time to have him gift-wrapped.”

Four Roswellian jaws dropped in unison. Max recovered first.

“You – you’re saying you actually killed someone? A Federal Agent?”

“Yeah – he’s the one who shot Michael. I was waitin’ and picked the dude off as he left the park. They want to capture you one by one – easier to deal with, that way.”

“How do you know all this and why the hell didn’t you tell us before?”

Lonnie leaned against the hood of the SUV, her attitude studiedly cool and casual; but her anger and frustration was clear to them all as she stared at Max.

“Kind of an insurance policy. They controlled us through the implants – said if we helped them capture you they’d release us. Oh, yeah, like we believed that, too, but we had no choice. Our powers were gone and we want them back any way we can. Then Tess turned up lookin’ for her kid. They let her take us so we could report back but they didn’t make a move to capture her – they seemed to be waiting for something. Then we heard you were on your way. Hafta say you were a real big disappointment to us, Your Majesty…so we kept on reporting to the Special Unit and played a double game until the rest of you arrived. Like I said – insurance.”

“So you sold us out to the enemy?” Isobel was bitter.

“No, we’re with you now. We got a deal, remember? Michael said if we helped you then you’d help us. You’re our only hope left…”

“So where’s Rath?”

Kyle was still wary and suspicious. Lonnie’s gaze passed indifferently over him and returned to Max and Isobel.

“I don’t know how bad Michael was hurt, but he and his little human bitch are being held at the compound and Rath is with them. He’ll do his best to protect them and delay things until we get there. We’ve got a little time – they’ve got Tess but they’re planning to stay here for a few days and see if they can capture any more of you.”

“How many are there?”

“There are five or six agents that we’ve seen, but there may be more because they used us to run their errands and all we seem to do around here is shop for fuckin’ supplies…”

“What’s the set-up in the compound?”

Max now seemed to be alert, making a real effort to focus on the situation, asking the right questions and remaining calmer than the others had expected, given his recent behavior.

“We didn’t get the $10 tour, but we saw a family-sized main house and a smaller place in the woods down towards the shore. There’s a big RV parked near the house, too, and they also have at least two other vehicles and a patrol car.”

“Sounds like they have quite an operation. We can’t just rush in and hope to take them by surprise. We have to take enough time to think it out.”

He sounded cool and quietly determined, more like the old Roswell Max. However, despite the new attitude, Kyle wasn’t going to let Max just take over as leader unchallenged. Who knew when he’d lose the plot again and decide to do something selfish and stupid because he was the ‘King’ or, in Kyle’s opinion – just because he was Max Evans. In the short time since they’d fled Roswell, Michael had gained Kyle’s respect as a friend and leader – his loyalty wasn’t going to change just because the guy was wounded and out of action. He butted in with questions of his own.

“What do they know about us? What kind of security do they have? Can we get close to the house without being seen?”

Lonnie provided as much information as she claimed to know and the others were forced to trust her on this. Soon the discussion centered on a rough map she drew showing the layout of the house and compound as she’d seen it.

Liz kept quiet and watched Max and Kyle as they argued back and forth, her nervousness showing in the way she hugged herself and shifted from foot to foot. Isobel sympathised – she felt the same way but had had much more practice at controlling herself. She wasn’t surprised when Liz suddenly rushed into speech; the girl was coming out of shock and getting impatient, looking sick with fear, but sounding more like her old self then she had since Roswell.

“We must hurry, there isn’t much time – M-Michael could be d-dying… maybe they’ll t-torture Maria like they did Max.”

She sent him an eloquent, apologetic glance and he had a sudden glimmer of hope, hastily repressed as she talked on, refusing to hold his gaze.

“We have to do something. Now.”

Finally it was agreed that the only option was to go in and deal with whatever came at them. The time for action had arrived at last.

Kyle flexed his impressive shoulder muscles under his dark sweatshirt and quickly summed up the plan before Max had time to open his mouth.

“So, I guess that about covers it – the first part of the plan is down to Lonnie and me. Basically, they have surveillance cameras all round the house and security alarms, too, at the gate. That shouldn’t be any problem provided I can get close enough through the trees without being seen. Later…”

The little party split up to wait in the vehicles while Kyle disappeared across the road, jogging back the half-mile to the compound entrance ready to disable the gate alarms after Lonnie had set them off by her return. The time gave him a chance to clear his thoughts and focus on what was ahead, away from the tensions that were still showing in the group even as they worked together to rescue Michael and Maria. He could see that Liz and Max were still as aware of each other as they always had been, that there was unfinished business between them, but he really hoped they would be able to put it aside to help their friends.

Behind him, back at the vehicles, Lonnie had demanded Max’s reluctant help in moving the cooling corpse from Tess’s SUV to the back of the pick-up, taking the agent’s gun for herself before she drove back to the compound to see what she could do by way of distracting the guard from the monitors in the security room.

For the next thirty minutes Isobel sipped coffee in the Chevy while Liz curled up in a blanket and sat blindly staring up at the stars through the open window of the van and Max inspected the customized interior of the pick-up truck with surprised appreciation.

Then vibration of Isobel’s cell phone, now set to silent, made her jump. Kyle reported that he’d taken out all the security cameras, the gate was open and Lonnie had phoned him and then waved out of a window at the front of the house to show him it was all clear.

“She says she’s, um, ‘taken out’ the security guard as well, so that leaves a minimum four agents still loose and nobody watching the monitors now. She says the decoy truck is back and the enemy thinks they shook off our tail. They’re pleased about the easy capture of two of us but worried that Michael’s in bad shape…”

He heard Isobel’s muffled sob, but could offer no comfort. He didn’t need her to break down now, so he was deliberately sharp when he spoke again.

“Isobel, listen to me. Now is not the time to lose it. The only way you can help him and Maria now is to stay strong so we can get to them fast. Okay?”

“Yes, okay. You’re right. Sorry. What do I do next?”

“Go tell Liz and Max to follow you through the open gate into the driveway. I’ll be waiting about halfway along.”

A few minutes later, a dark-clad figure emerged from the gloom of the trees lining the driveway and Kyle waved the little convoy to a stop. Soon four shadowy figures slipped quietly along edge of the dark driveway, then crowded into the shelter of some bushes where they had a good view of the house in the bright moonlight across a stretch of open ground.

Kyle tried to inject a little humor to ease the tension.

“See, this is were being the Sheriff’s son comes in useful. I got to play at ‘stakeout’ – hiding quietly in the bushes for days instead of playing normal games with their dads like the other kids did. Didn’t work that one out for years… Okay, only kiddin’, Liz.”

Max, too, gave him a stony glare for his effort and then reminded them of the plan they’d agreed on earlier.

“So we split up and case the area. Liz and Isobel, stay together and cover this side of the house. I’ll check out the yard and Kyle will take the far side and the RV. If you see anything, don’t take any action alone unless you have no choice. We’ll meet behind the RV in fifteen. Good luck.”

Before he could move away, Liz briefly touched his arm to stop him.

“Wait. It’s too bright – we’ll be seen if anyone is watching. If Michael were here he’d use his powers to bring clouds to hide the moon. You can do it, too, Isobel, can’t you?”

“Oh, yes, that’s a good idea, just let me concentrate.”

Isobel took a moment to be pleased to see that Liz was making an effort to contribute again. Then she let her mind reach out into the elements and make a few changes to the atmosphere. It was easier than creating snow; she just needed a layer of cloud cover to block out the light. A few minutes later the moon disappeared and their eyes had adjusted to the darkness. The lights from the house glowed as beacons for Liz and Isobel as they slipped out of the shelter of the bushes and across the dark yard. Seconds layer, the guys also headed out into the showdown with their enemies.

Somewhere inside on the upper floor of the house a scared and angry Maria sat alone on a hard chair in a locked bedroom as she tried desperately to make mental contact with Michael.

She had been torn away from him, shoved roughly inside and then her captors had left, locking the door behind them, but not before Rath had winked at her. All through the nightmare journey, a part of her mind that wasn’t frantic with fear for Michael was seething with anger and hatred for the treacherous dupe who must have double-crossed them from the start. The shock of seeing two Michaels had confused her for a moment, but in the instant she recognised Rath, he had turned away and ignored her. Now here he was apparently trying to reassure her. She didn’t know what to think.

She didn’t have time to spare for speculation right then, either. Michael was her priority, but he wasn’t responding to her. He was still very much alive – she knew that much because she could feel his energy through their connection, faint though it currently was – but still he was badly hurt. His mind was somewhere behind a curtain of pain and darkness but she wouldn’t give up on trying to break through. However hard she tried, though, to her increasing frustration he remained out of reach. She carried on talking to him even as she rose to go over and listen at the door.

***Damn stubborn Spaceboy. Of all the times to stonewall me, why does he choose now? Don’t think you can hide from me that easily, Michael Guerin. You know us De Luca women never quit and I’m not about to break with tradition. C’mon, speak to me…***

Still talking away to her boyfriend, alternately pleading and haranguing, she went back and rummaged in her small pack, still with her despite all the night’s adventures. Turning out the contents of her make-up pouch onto the bed, she searched out several slim lengths of metal mixed in amongst the collection of brushes, pots and tubes of colorful lip-gloss and eyeshadow Maria deemed essential to face the world. Then she carefully returned everything else to her pack and shrugged it over her shoulders. She wasn’t going anywhere without it.

Crossing to the door, she knelt and peered through the keyhole, thankful to see light on the other side. There was no key left in the lock. If there had been, she could deal, but it would delay things, maybe even screw up her bid for freedom before it started.

Wherever he was tonight, Maria sent Sean an affectionate hug and warmly wished him well. Her delinquent cousin had often driven her to distraction but over the years he had taught her an illegal skill or two for her own protection. Picking locks had been an early lesson because she had locked herself out of the house once when Amy had been away overnight and he’d had to come to her rescue. Now she was as skilful with picks as with the credit card she’d used that time she’d broken into Michael’s apartment with Liz before the Prom. This little operation took her less than 30 smooth and silent seconds. Sean would be proud.

Opening the door a crack to listen for any sounds in the hall outside, she heard footsteps coming up the stairs. Quickly retreating back into the room in case it was a jailor coming to check on her, she waited with all her nerves on edge until they passed by. She repressed the urge to reach for her favorite calming cedar oil – if she’d ever needed it more she couldn’t remember when, but she couldn’t take the time to use it now. A few minutes later, the footsteps returned the way they came passing her door without any pause, to her immense relief.

All the while, she’d carried on a running mental commentary on her activities for the oblivious Michael, still trying to spur him into consciousness. Finally, frustrated by inaction, she decided that it was too risky to leave the room through the door while there were people wandering around the house, so she got up to un-pick the lock and wedge the only chair under the door handle, to make it more difficult to open, before switching the light off. Then she waited for her eyes to become accustomed to the darkness outside and made her way over to the window.

There was no moonlight to show Maria anything of her surroundings, but the darkness was not complete. Light from the room next to the one in which she was held spilled yellow out onto the wide roof of a porch below. It showed that her idea was do-able, but she felt herself grow dizzy at the thought. It took several moments of arguing with herself before she summoned up enough courage to open the window and look down.

She usually had no problem with heights, but the darkness and her own distractions combined to make her stomach clench with fear as she climbed awkwardly out to sit on the narrow window ledge. Her legs dangled in space and she waited for her heartbeat to slow down enough for her to hear her own loud breathing in the silence of the warm night. The memory of her first turn on night watch at their camp in the woods came vividly back to her but she knew that there would be no strong comforting arms waiting to enfold her when she reached the end of this scary little foray alone into the unknown.

Taking a deep breath, she slid carefully down feeling for a foot hold. Finally she stood pressed against the wall, balanced insecurely in the shadows at the top of the sloping porch roof where it joined the house a few feet below the second floor windows.

Again she waited for a few moments, making herself get a grip and calm down. Too late to go back and, anyway, it wouldn’t help Michael if she fell off the roof. She had to find him somehow, and this was the only way.

Moving slowly sideways towards the light, she edged carefully along, trying to focus on the next window, thankful that the darkness hid the long, rolling drop to the ground below.
Peering carefully round the edge of the frame, she looked through the wide-open window at a scene as brightly lit as a TV screen.

A child’s travelling crib was placed beside a rumpled bed and a familiar figure paced up and down holding baby Zan against her shoulder, gently stroking and comforting him while he sucked his thumb and nodded gently off to sleep.

Biting her lip hard to prevent herself making any noise, Maria forgot all danger and knocked softly on the window in warning, holding her finger to her lips as she prepared to climb inside.

Of course, her warning hadn’t been heeded and hearing her own name in a muffled scream as she half-fell onto the window seat was really no surprise.

“Maria! Oh, my God. Maria…”

“Mom…?”

********

Chapter Sixty-Nine

Although he wasn’t aware of his surroundings, Michael swam slowly up through the darkness into pain that clawed at him someplace he couldn’t yet identify. He found that he was angry and scared and instinctively kept himself still and quiet so Hank might not be provoked into inflicting more punishment.

Then the light of Maria’s emotional presence sparkled through his mind to chase away the remnants of the nightmare memory and her voice rambled on apparently delivering a confusing monologue he hadn’t a hope of following right then.

The feeling of danger came back to him – danger to Maria – and he found he was angry with himself and scared for her and his warning roared powerfully through their connection.

***Maria, can you just shut up for a minute while I think? You’re in danger, I hurt like hell and you babbling doesn’t help any***

He felt her shock turn into joy then annoyance even as he heard her voice turn sharp and clear in his mind, drowning out others somewhere who were distantly demanding his attention.

***Keep the volume down, Spaceboy. You’re not broadcasting to the nation, just me. Welcome back. Listen, whatever you do, don’t let your guards know you’re awake and, by the way, just so you know, I was NOT babbling, I was keeping you in the loop with current events***

He felt her underlying fear and then heard it in her anxious mental voice as she dropped the forced lightness and focused in on what was really important to her.

***Michael, how badly are you hurt?***

***I’ll live. Are YOU okay?***

***I’m fine. I’m up on the roof of the porch, on my way to find you. Do you remember what happened to us? You were shot and we’ve been captured by the Feds and – breaking news – Rath is one of them. I think. I’m not sure. He did wink at me when he left, whatever that means. Anyway, we’re prisoners and I was taken away from you, locked in a bedroom and left there all alone. Then I escaped and found baby Zan and – oh my God, I can’t believe it but my mom is here too …***

Just for a moment, Michael considered retreating back into the darkness from which he’d just emerged. Had she really said she was on the roof? Maria often left him breathless trying to keep up with her mercurial thought processes, but this time she totally had him on the ropes. Then he pulled himself together. He had to find a way out of his predicament fast, so he could go rescue her and – but surely he’d got that wrong, too – …Amy?

Even as he began to question her about this, the background voices that had been talking quietly suddenly grew louder and he felt his left arm being raised and pulled straight; it was enough so that the pain in his side grabbed him again, forcing his eyes to open involuntarily. He was staring up at the ceiling of a brightly lit room and two men were staring down at him with interest.

One of them looked familiar and it was he who held a hypodermic syringe and was preparing to use it. The other man urged him to move faster.

“He’s starting to regain consciousness – quick, man, get the sedative into him before he wakes up enough to use his powers on us.”

Michael tried to struggle and found that he was imprisoned by constraints at his wrists and ankles. The movement brought agonising pain to his side, but that didn’t stop him until he felt the prick of the needle and his thoughts went cold with anger and apprehension.

He could hear Maria in his mind shouting desperately at him through their connection, demanding to know what was going on, but he had no time to explain as the needle bit into his arm and he hurriedly fell back onto the bed, closed his eyes and focused all his attention internally.

He remembered what he had done back there on the tiny lake beach when Maria had talked him into erasing the scar from the Antarian King tattoo. He knew what he had to do now and concentrated on the area where the prick of the needle still stung.

Searching within himself on a molecular level, Michael found and followed the drug into his own bloodstream and neutralised it before it could do its work. Letting his energy flow on to the wound in his side he found and repaired enough of the damage to stop the pain and heal most of the wound. There was no bullet there, so he knew that someone had removed it and patched up the tear. He left enough of the superficial damage to fool his captors, if they checked, into thinking he was still injured. Then he let his mind relax and return to its conscious level, making an effort to keep his eyes shut and his breathing even, trying to hide the fact that he was still awake and aware.

A tense couple minutes of silence passed, during which he failed to reassure a panicking Maria for fear of breaking his concentration, then the other guy spoke.

“I’ve gotta use the john and then go check on the other one, make sure she's still out of it. Want me to bring some coffee back?”

“No, I’ll get it myself. Man, I need a smoke too, it’s been too damn long. Lucky the damage wasn’t as bad as it looked when you first brought him in – a rib deflected the bullet – but I’m no surgeon. It was a quick patch job to save him but it will delay implanting the inhibitor until his body functions return to normal, whatever 'normal' is for his kind.”

“Maybe one of us should stay on guard – what if the drug wears off faster than you think and he wakes up?”

“No chance – one shot of the juice kept the little blonde thing out for 12 hours, all through the implant procedure, too, so this one’ll be good for the next 30 minutes, no sweat.”

Michael heard the door open and close and the lock click a moment later. He waited for a full minute, listening for the sound of breathing in case it was a trick, and then opened his eyes.

Turning his head cautiously he saw that the room was empty and tried to sit up, only to recall that he was held down to the bed by metal clamps.

Unlocking them with his powers was the work of a moment and he sat up to briefly survey his prison. It was a large bedroom, the bed pushed against the wall and replaced with a hospital-type gurney with metal restraints and various medical implements laid out on a nearby table.

Maria’s voice in his head again, demanding the details of what she had felt happen, distracted him for a moment but he didn’t have time to go through it all for her now and she’d have to be content with the short version until they had more time.

***I couldn’t talk to you and play dead at the same time. There was a lot of pain but I think I’ve healed me enough to kick some ass and come find you, princess…***

She was mollified and, while he made ready for his escape, told him what she had discovered since they had been captured.

They’d left him his boxers, otherwise he was naked except for the dressing covering the wound in his side. He pulled on his clothes, left neatly folded on a chair, then he went over to the door to melt the lock closed before going over to open the window and climb out.

By this time Michael had at last made some sense out of Maria’s story and was on his way to find her in the darkness outside.

He also remembered just where he had seen the face of the man with the needle… Jesse’s shady doctor friend, Paul, who been called in to help save Isobel when the Metachem goons had shot her.

More pieces of the puzzle were finally beginning to fall into place…

Meanwhile, Maria was waiting anxiously for him on another side of the house, but before he could set off to find her he hit a snag – there was no convenient porch roof here, just a long drop from the window to the ground below and in the darkness he couldn’t judge how far that was – maybe ten, fifteen feet or even more as he didn’t know anything about the house other than what little Maria could tell him. Thinking fast, he used his powers to manipulate molecules into a dense ‘cushion’ of air to break his fall and launched himself off the window ledge into the unknown.

Outside in the grounds, the others had arrived five minutes before and begun to explore the perimeter of the house.

Max had moved quietly along the side of the house but had no luck trying to peer into the doors and windows opening out of it and now, from the shadows below the deck railing, saw that the large glass-fronted living room facing the lake was dark. He figured instead of wasting time watching an empty yard, that he would make his way to the small cottage Lonnie had told them was further down among the trees towards the lake and check that out before he met the others. He reached the little house in a few minutes and, as the place was well lit from within, easily spotted a man sitting out on the steps, smoking a cigarette. It was clear that he was on guard, because the guy was in his shirtsleeves, revealing the gun in his shoulder holster.

Max stayed twenty feet away in the protection of the bushes, conserving his strength, and thought about what to do next.

He was convinced that it was either his son or Tess being held in the cottage and he forgot everything else in his determination to rescue them. What he needed was a distraction to draw the guard away from the house. He considered various ideas, but none were viable until it suddenly came to him that he didn’t need to hide. His very alien-ness was the weapon he needed.

Standing straight, Max moved out into plain sight, walking steadily towards the man on the porch who stood up and drew his gun, firing shot after shot at the stranger with the green-glowing aura until the clip was empty and it was too late – he had nowhere to run. The glow snaked out a tentacle and as it touched him he died.

Max was surprised and annoyed at this – he hadn’t intended to hurt the man, just knock him cold and ask questions later. However, the genes of the ex-King of Antar were too much a part of him to regret the death of an enemy.

He stepped over the body and into the tiny hallway of the cottage. There were only four rooms to search and he headed straight to the only bedroom, afraid to hope he would find his son inside… However, the small figure on the bed, lying still as death, was Tess and he swallowed his disappointment as he bent over her to shake her awake. There could be no better companion in his continuing search than the mother of his child…

Kyle, skirting the edge of the lawn to approach the house, had seen lights glowing from the windows and what was obviously a kitchen door at the side, and so made his way as close as he dared to listen. However, he heard nothing so after a few minutes he moved across to check out the RV which was in darkness with no signs of life.

Reluctant to just hide and wait for the next ten minutes until the others joined him, he debated the wisdom of breaking into the vehicle to see what he could find. If there was someone asleep inside then it could be a bad move, but he figured that with a ‘captured alien’ situation going on in the house, none of the Special Unit would be likely to sleep through it, so he wasn’t taking a huge risk.

After a deep, cleansing breath, he flicked his flashlight on to pencil beam and tentatively reached for the sidedoor handle. It was locked, but since he had been practicing his powers under Michael and Isobel’s tutoring on the long drive across country, it opened smoothly for him after a moment and a convenient integral step lowered automatically. After listening for a moment, he cautiously stepped up and entered the deeper darkness inside.

As he did so, he felt movement beside him and ducked as a heavy blow missed his head and landed agonisingly on his left shoulder. Somebody grabbed his arm and twisted it painfully behind him, forcing him to his knees before another blow on the back of his head sent him spinning into darkness.

Fifty feet away, Isobel and Liz had crept along the front of the house, which had a railed wooden porch along the entire façade shading large windows either side of the double front door. Climbing up the three steps, spotlit by the light over the door, they crossed cautiously over to the window on the right. It was lit up, but the drapes were closed and nothing showed through.

The window was open to the night air, however, and Liz whispered softly to Isobel to summon a breeze that might part the drapes long enough for them to see within. The alien girl was impressed with this ingenuity and gave her a tight smile of approval, which was gratefully returned. Liz desperately wanted to show everyone that she was back on track after her breakdown and she knew Isobel wouldn’t be the easiest one of the group to convince, so she was happy to have made a start at least.

It was the work of a moment for Isobel to call up a small breeze, which stirred the drapes softly before a strong gust parted them enough to see that the room was set up as a makeshift security center. A big man was slumped in a floral patterned armchair before a row of blank monitors. He appeared to be asleep, but the girls were sure that it must be the agent Lonnie had reportedly ‘taken out’. Neither liked the thought, but both knew they couldn’t afford to be anything other than hard-hearted about the death of an enemy who was out to kill them or worse.

Moving on past the front door to the window on the other side, the same trick worked just as sweetly and this time the night breeze revealed a large, brightly lit kitchen.

Isobel’s world reeled and she had to clutch at Liz to keep herself from fainting.

For the breeze also revealed Jesse Ramirez sitting at the table pouring coffee into a mug while another man sat across from him, his hand in the act of reaching towards a large platter of sandwiches held out to him by a sullen Lonnie.

At that moment on the other side of the house, Michael’s landing was relatively gentle onto long grass and he quickly scrambled to his feet, wincing at the pain from his not quite healed wound. Nothing stirred behind the glowing window shades and he headed towards what he thought was the front of the house, unaware that he’d missed Max by minutes.

As he reached the corner of the porch he looked up, trying to see where Maria was from her mental directions. Sure enough she was sitting up in the shadows on the edge of the roof with her back against the wall and her knees drawn up to her chest.

***Maria, look – I’m here, I can see you. Now you gotta come down to me – ***

***That’s easy for you to say, Spaceboy. Where are the steps? I want steps, but only if there’s no elevator. I've never been afraid of heights before, but it’s a long way down from here…and it’s too dark to see you or anything else. Maybe if you used your Czechoslovakian weather magic to make the moon shine? No, scratch that – if I could actually see where I am, I know I’d just lose it and fall anyway…***

She babbled nervously on while he grinned to himself. He didn’t blame her for being scared – he hadn’t particularly liked the experience of falling into the unknown himself, even though he had his powers to make sure he landed safely. He was preparing to climb up and then help her down via the porch railing when he had an idea and suddenly grinned even more widely in the darkness where she couldn’t see him.

***Maria, all you have to do is jump and I’ll catch you***

***!!!!!***

*** What? Hey, don’t you trust me?***

***!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!***

***Oh. Well, yeah, okay, I guess – but you gotta admit, never when it really counted… Anyhow, forget that because right now you have to come down sometime and I can make it easy for you. I promise. Trust me***

***Yeah, right, Spaceboy, haven't we've just been through all that? Just what have you got in mind, before I commit myself?***

***A cushion of air. It worked for me and I was way higher than you are now. Are you ready? Just slide your leg down off the roof until you feel the resistance. Can you feel it?***

***Yes… Wait, no, wait! I-I don’t think I can do it…***

***You’re always telling me DeLuca women can do anything they put their minds to…so now it’s time to put your money where your mouth is, DeLuca***

***Damn you, Michael. It’s not fair to use my own words against me… Okay, then, here I come, ready or not, but you'd just better be ready...***

Michael had been distracted by their banter and wasn’t quite ready for her to act so quickly; the cushion of air had dissipated a little, making her fall faster than he had intended. When she landed in his arms the force of her descent knocked him over backwards and they landed in a heap on the ground, with Maria on top.

Despite the pain in his side, he was so pleased to have her back safely in his arms that he pulled her down to him and kissed her fast but fiercely, her response matching his with equal passion.

Breaking apart, they stood up and dusted themselves off before peeking round the side of the house, just in time to see Isobel unlock the front door with her powers and, with her head held high and her ‘Ice Queen’ persona in place, march inside and close it silently behind her.

The small figure of Liz Parker crouched beneath the window further along, in the act of talking into her cell phone before disappearing round the corner of the house.

Michael and Maria wasted no time in speculation; they just followed Liz round to the other side of the house, where a big RV was parked.

The rear door opened and a hand reached out to help Liz up the step before she disappeared inside...

********

Chapter Seventy

Inside the RV, the first person Liz saw was Kyle, sitting on the padded bench seat against the opposite window, wincing as he tenderly explored the back of his sore head. She rushed over to him, concerned that he was hurt, but his incredulous gaze was fixed on some point back over her shoulder.

She turned quickly to find their old mentor Jim Valenti, looking worried and angry and pleased to see her all at the same time. He was the one who had given Liz his hand to help her climb up into the RV, but in her blind panic she hadn’t fully registered his presence until that moment. She ran into his fatherly hug and then dropped back down beside a still dazed Kyle.

Rath lounged in the passenger seat, which was swung round to face the compact living area of the big rig. He looked at the scene with an impatient sneer, leaving no time for explanations before he interrupted the reunion.

“Yo, listen up. Y’all ain’t got no time for no mushy, happy families, Mayberry crap, we gotta go rescue Michael and his little Maria bitch from the big bad. Where’dya leave the others?”

Liz, recalling what she was there for, shot a horrified look at Kyle, who tensed up in apprehension.

“It’s Isobel – she wouldn’t let me go with her and wouldn’t wait for back up, she just seemed to forget anything else existed. She…she’s gone inside to confront Jesse… When Rath answered your cell and said you were out cold, I rushed straight over here. Sheriff, I mean, Mister Valenti, why are you here? What’s going on? What are we going to do?”

Valenti hesitated for only a moment’s thought before he answered her.

“First of all, find Max and get him here pronto. We’ll need all the firepower we can muster. There are at least six agents out there, from what I’ve seen. Isobel could normally take that bastard - forgive me, Liz - Ramirez out all by herself, but that young lady’s in a highly emotional state and unpredictable. Kyle, Rath – you boys and I will go first to check out the situation, attack if she needs help. Ms Parker, you stay here and call Max, tell him to get here fast.”

“Dad, Isobel won’t thank us for crashing her party before she’s good and ready, so we better be sure before we jump in with all guns blazing, okay?”

“Speaking of guns, son, I know Rath has come prepared because he used his to knock you out when we thought you were the enemy but I don’t suppose you brought any weapons?”

Kyle grinned wryly at his father.

“No guns, dad, if that’s what you mean, but I’m not exactly powerless now…”

A brief green glow crackled around his raised hand, only for the gesture to be immediately echoed by the Sheriff, who took a moment to enjoy his son’s shocked expression.

“Time for the Valenti family to go kick some ass, son. You okay with staying here alone, Ms Parker?”

Rath stood up, impatient for action, but the Valenti men hesitated, looking down at the small, vulnerable girl on the couch, who waved them away and was already thumbing her cell phone to call Max.

Down in the cottage, Max was attempting to shake and slap the unconscious Tess awake while listening for approaching enemies outside in the darkness. He had a brief flash of memory, recalling the rough sex-games she’d taught him to enjoy during the brief time they were together and again over the last week when she was his only comfort and distraction from the nightmare of losing his powers and his son. But lust was the last thing on his mind now and he concentrated on bringing her out of her obviously drug-induced state.

Finally, desperately recalling Isobel's gift of strength to him earlier, he tried giving some of his own depleted reserves to Tess.

It worked and she finally began to stir, her blue eyes dazed as they stared back up at him with the same sly desire in their depths that he had seen so often in recent days. An instant later she snapped back into focus as she realized that something was wrong. Her voice rasped from a dry throat.

“Where are we? What happened? Max – I don’t understand…”

Just then, his cell phone buzzed in his pocket and he quickly answered to hear a sharp-voiced Liz telling him to come back to the house to help Isobel.

Guilt instantly kicked in – how could he be recalling sex with Tess at this of all inappropriate times and especially when Liz needed his help? He waved away Tess’ urgent, bewildered questions; whatever her need was, it came third behind those of Liz and his sister. He gently brushed off her clinging hands, urging her to hurry back to the house with him. She plainly didn’t have a clue what he was talking about and he explained as much as he knew while he hustled her off the bed and down the darkened hall.

He peered cautiously out of the door, where the body of the dead agent was lying where he had left it, arranged as if asleep in a chair under the porch-light.

A flashlight beam moving round the corner of the path caught his eye and he pulled back into the house out of sight.

“There’s another agent arriving out there. I need you to mind-warp him into seeing that everything is ok here and then get him out of our way. Send him someplace where he won’t bother us.”

Tess pushed past him and peered out in her turn, then moved out to stand confidently in full view as the agent saw her, aimed his a gun at her and pulled out his cell phone. She lifted a hand and he dived for cover in the trees just as she stepped quickly back inside, panic on her face and in her voice.

“Max, I – I can’t do it – my powers have gone! I tried to use them but there’s nothing there! I don’t have my powers any more and there’s a man out there with a gun about to kill us… Max, do something!”

Max thrust her aside and threw open the door, about to raise his shield when he saw a tall column of green energy glowing eerily in the darkness, moving down the path behind the agent.

In the silence of the night, he could clearly hear the man whispering urgently into his cell phone but obviously getting no response, fire in panic at the apparition. The muffled cracks of silenced bullets exploded against the glowing shape. When the hail of bullets stopped, some invisible force lifted the hapless man and threw him against a tree, where he crumpled to the ground and lay still.

After a moment’s shock Max recognised Michael behind a protective shield of his own and ran over to meet him.

He first slapped Michael lightly on the shoulder, to show his relief that he was free and apparently unhurt, but that was all the acknowledgement between them.

“How’s Maria?”

“She’s good. Back at the house with her mom and the others.”

Max didn’t register the last comment because Michael looked grim and carried right on talking as he stared down at the fallen agent.

“He’s not dead. We can’t leave him here to wake up and try again. He was on his way to check on Tess. Help me carry him inside and we can tie him up until we decide what to do with him.”

“No time for that. Liz needs us to help Isobel. She’s in danger – she went in alone to confront Jesse. Come on, Michael, hurry.”

“There’s time. Turns out Jim Valenti is here, captured along with Maria’s mom. Isobel can handle any attack from Jesse, but Kyle and Valenti are watching out for her, holding the fort until we get back. Rath’s there, too. Our job is to put the rest of the goons out of action.”

Max didn’t like it, but Michael ignored his protests and began to drag the heavy, inert body back onto the path until he gave in and went to help.

He found it more a difficult task than he had expected and realized that the burst of alien strength Isobel had shared with him earlier was waning and the deep exhaustion from his son’s power drain was beginning to regain a hold on his mind and body. He struggled to hide it from Michael. Max was not yet in real difficulty, so saw no point in worrying him. Isobel still needed help and Liz was frightened, too, he had read that in her voice on the phone. She couldn’t hide it from him, he knew her too well. Conserving his strength until he really needed it was the best thing to do for them all right now.

Michael barely acknowledged Tess’ presence as he and Max brushed past her in the hall on the way to tie their prisoner to the bed, and he scowled at her on his return as she waited passively in the doorway.

Her blue eyes were wide and blank until she suddenly threw herself into Max’s arms. Now he had time to give her his full attention, it suddenly hit him that if she was telling the truth about losing her powers, then she must be shocked and devastated for herself on top of her fear for their son.

Despite hating her for everything she had done, especially killing Alex, he did still have some feeling, even love, left in his heart for her. She was the only one who had always been there for him during his darkest, loneliest times and, whatever her motives, she had offered him support and comfort. He could never forget that; so he held her as she sobbed against his chest in her despair.

Michael already knew from his guards’ conversation that her powers had been suppressed by the implant but he considered that a neutralized Tess was probably a good thing right now, so he said nothing while Max tried to calm her down. Then he reported that Maria had found baby Zan.

When she finally believed what he said the transformation was instant. Tess turned a glowing, hopeful face up to his through her tears. She left a dazed Max and launched herself at Michael, clawing at his sweatshirt with both hands in her need to be reunited with her son.

“Where is he? Where’s my baby? Take me to him, now, at once.” Her command quickly changed to frantic begging. “Please, Michael…please.”

Max was also feeling a huge burst of relief and euphoria at finding his son, but had sufficient caution to warn against rushing into more danger. Michael agreed as he hurriedly pushed Tess back into Max’s hold. Sympathy had a limit, as far as he was concerned. It didn’t change his feelings about anything she’d done before.

“The kid’s with Maria’s mom up at the house. Wait here until we’ve dealt with Jesse and his remaining goons. I’ll let you know when it’s safe.”

“No! If you go, then I’m going, too. You can’t stop me.”

Michael met Max’s eyes over her defiant head. Then he shrugged. If Max wanted the treacherous little bitch along, then it was up to him to protect her. Michael led the way out of the cottage and back down the dark path without looking back. All his senses were on high alert for danger and he connected to the thread of Maria’s emotions in his mind to check what was going on in the house. Before he could even form the thought she was asking urgent questions of her own.

***Michael, what’s happening with you? Are you ok? Have you captured any enemy agents? Have you found Max?***

***I’m good. Got two on ice and, yeah, I found Max. Tess is here too, both desperate to get to the kid. I told her to wait here until we’ve dealt with the enemy, but she wouldn’t listen and we’re all on our way back to the house. What about you?***

*** Valenti told Liz to stay in the RV with her cell phone, ready to pass on messages and keep everyone in contact. I picked the lock on the door to the deck and managed to sneak upstairs to check on Mom and now she’s keeping little Zan quiet while I’m at the top of the stairs, trying to listen in to Isobel and Jesse down in the kitchen***

***Can you hear what’s happening? Can you see anything?***

***The door’s open. They’re talking, Jesse mostly but I can’t hear him too well. Isobel’s angry, she was almost shouting but now she’s gone quiet. Wait, I’m going to go downstairs and try to see if I can get closer…***

***Maria, stay where you are until I get there. Don’t put yourself in any more danger– ***

***Shhhh, Michael, I’d say the same to you if I thought you’d listen, but you never do… Now be quiet, Spaceboy, it’s just getting interesting…***

He felt her connection fade back to its normal stream of emotions somewhere in the back of his mind as she turned her conscious attention to eavesdropping on the conversation between Isobel and her husband. Michael cursed silently. He loved Maria’s headstrong determination, but he just hated it when she rushed impulsively off into danger without dragging him along to protect her.

When he and Maria had joined the three men who’d emerged from the RV earlier, Valenti had wasted no time on explanations but instantly included him in his plan. Rath had been assigned to guard the porch and far side of the house to stop the enemy gaining entry. Kyle and the former Sheriff were waiting and listening by the kitchen door.

Michael had volunteered to hunt for and neutralize any other agents roaming around. He thought that - with Jesse, Paul and the dead agent at the house - the two at the cottage and one body in Tess's SUV, all six that they knew about had now been accounted for, but there was still a need to be sure.

Now Max and Tess were a few steps behind him and he stopped to whisper orders to stay in the shadows by the deck and keep watch for the enemy. He knew Max would be close by if he was needed, but his uncertain powers and strength should be conserved until it was called on. To his surprise, both obeyed without argument or question. The stealthy walk along the path from the cottage through the thick darkness must have instilled a sense of caution in both of them.

Leaving them behind, raising a green glowing hand as a warning of his presence, he saw a brief answering glow and slid along the side of the house to find the Valenti family pressed flat either side of the glass-paned kitchen door, listening to voices clearly engaged in argument. He joined them just in time to hear Isobel’s scream.

Fifteen minutes before, Isobel had silently entered the house, strode across the empty hallway to the kitchen and then hesitated outside the door, listening for a long moment as her husband’s familiar laugh sounded on the other side.

Involuntarily, her eyes closed and her hands clenched into fists. She finally had to accept the truth that a tiny, hopeful part of her heart had never quite believed - Jesse’s betrayal was undeniably true. Her feelings warred between rage, pain and despair. Rage won.

Taking a deep breath, she lifted her head, opened the door and coldly announced her presence.

“So, Jesse, this is a surprise – just what the hell is going on?”

She was pleased to see Jesse’s eyes widen in shock at her sudden, dramatic appearance, but she had to deal first with the other man in the room who quickly stood up, knocking his chair over as he did so.

Isobel glanced briefly at the man she now – like Michael earlier – recognised as Jesse’s unlicensed doctor friend, Paul, called in only a few months ago to try to save her life. He still had that unshaven, disreputable air about him, but he stared back at her through a haze of cigarette smoke with a knowing look this time. It was clear that he was now aware of who and what she was – and he clearly wanted to be somewhere else right then.

He glanced between Isobel and Jesse then took a deep drag on his cigarette, making an attempt at casual bravado.

“Hey, it’s been a while. How are you doin’ since the…er… I mean, you’re lookin’ good. I guess you made a full recovery, right?”

Isobel wasted no time on him; using her powers without compunction, she threw him violently against the wall behind him. He slid unconscious to the floor in an untidy heap and she paid him no more attention.

In her peripheral vision, she saw her unpredictable duplicate, Lonnie, quickly move back to the farthest counter where she had been making sandwiches.

Isobel returned her glacial glare to her husband, who stood up and smiled at her with all his old charm.

“Isobel…I can’t believe you’re here. I’ve missed you so much, you don’t know how hard it’s been, worrying about you…”

Seeing him again in the flesh and hearing his voice suddenly made her heart contract in a mix of torn emotions whilst her breath momentarily caught in her throat before she could speak. At this, Jesse moved eagerly towards her, but stopped as she raised her hand threateningly.

He laughed softly, his face alight with happiness at seeing her again.

“Isobel, my Isobel, don’t be afraid of me. This set up isn’t what it looks like. I’m not your enemy. I’m the one who arranged things so you got out of Roswell without being followed by the Feds. I love you. This is all for us to be together. Didn’t you know I wouldn’t let you go so easily?”

This explanation was so tempting that for a moment Isobel believed him because she so very much wanted to. Then her inbuilt suspicion kicked in and her eyes narrowed.

“More lies – only this time, not mine. You must have known ahead of time there was going to be an ambush. There wasn’t enough time before we left to find and buy a van, let alone fix it up with the electronic bug to track us. So why didn’t you warn us before it happened?”

Before he could answer, she remembered her main concern and fear kicked in.

“Michael and Maria – what have you done to them? Is…is Michael still alive?”

“Yes, of course he’s still alive. My agent was ordered to disable him, not to kill. Michael’s upstairs, asleep. My medical friend Paul, over there – you remember him – has implanted a power-inhibitor but otherwise he’ll be fine. Maria’s with him. Oh, and I’ve got Tess and her son, too.

“I’m sure that Max is somewhere close by, my team will pick him up. Your clone here told me that his powers are almost drained, so he’s no threat either. It’ll be good to have our family together again at last.”

Enraged, Isobel raised her hand threateningly but Jesse smoothly continued to talk, the new cold, hard attitude replacing his initial persuasive tones.

“That leaves only Liz and your loser friend – whatsisname, Kyle? – still on the loose, but not for long. So, no, Isobel, you won’t use your powers on me, because I hold all the cards. I can…hurt…everyone you care about and I will if you don’t co-operate.”

Isobel sank helplessly down into the nearest chair. If his threats were true, then Jesse really did have the upper hand, at least for the moment. Kyle was out there somewhere and so there was still hope. He wouldn’t let her down, even if he died trying. Then, horrified at her own selfishness, she pushed that thought right out of her head and wished with all her heart instead that he would escape. He meant so much to her and if she had to spend the rest of her life enslaved by her monster of a husband, then her one consolation would be that at least he was free to live a life of his own.

She turned her attention back to the monster in question and summoned all her ice-queen self-control. She would have to play nice for the moment to see how much she could find out.

“I just don’t recognise the Jesse I knew and loved… I thought we were dealing with our problems and moving on. I can’t believe you would betray us, betray me. It’s time to tell the truth, Jesse. It seems I’m not the only one around here who told lies.”

The tension in the air between them was now almost tangible. Neither of them would break eye contact and there was a slight sheen of sweat on Jesse’s forehead under the lights.

“Yeah, well. I was with the FBI and have been since I left Harvard. It wasn’t until I requested to be assigned to New Mexico to be near to my mother that I got recruited by the Special Unit and planted as a ‘sleeper’ to keep an eye on Max. You were the easiest way into your family and your father’s law firm was happy to employ me. I have to say, at that point I certainly didn’t believe in aliens and I just thought it was an easy money job, with you as the sugar. I expected a long engagement, as you were so young. I could break it off when I had proof either way. I never expected to fall in love with you, but I did and when you insisted we must be married at once I was happy to go along with it.”

He stared earnestly at Isobel, sincerity suddenly shining out of his eyes. “I’m still glad we had that time together when we were newlywed. It was the best time of my life...so far.”

Isobel nodded, genuinely able to agree with this, but inside her thoughts were still in turmoil. The only thing that really mattered was to keep him talking while Kyle – and Liz – had a chance to escape; but still she had a desperate need to know why he had betrayed her trust if he still loved her as he claimed.

Jesse continued with his story, more comfortable now, pleased at being able to explain himself at last.

“I never thought you – or Max – were anything but what you pretended to be. When Michael told me you were aliens I had the hardest time believing it, even though that was my assignment. I even tried therapy to help get my head round it. But I had to admit that the Special Unit were right all along – aliens are among us. It didn’t take me long to see how big an advantage that gave me…”

Isobel hated to interrupt the flow, but she was gripped by curiosity and had to ask.

“But if you were working for the FBI, how come you killed that agent who was sent to investigate us? Why didn’t you just tell him who you were and that you were on the case?

“See, that’s the genius of my plan. After the Special Unit was officially disbanded only the original members knew of it’s continued existence. I didn’t know the background until the surviving agents called me in after the airforce base explosion and I saw the tape your parents made of you displaying your powers. I thought the deep cover operation was legit. I had my FBI ‘day job’ keeping tabs on some of your father’s shadier clients. He wasn’t aware of FBI interest and that’s the way we liked it. After that guy Burns – a fellow agent in the Special Unit – was prepared to kill me for his own gain, well, that made me think long and hard…”

Isobel, although she accepted the hard truth she already knew, was still hurt all over again at his betrayal.

“But, Jesse, I thought things got better between us – and then you had that job offer in Boston and the chance to get away from all the troubles and start afresh...”

Jesse sighed patiently and shook his head at her.

“There was no job offer, Isobel – it was code to tell me the Graduation ambush was all set up. That was the last operation by the old Special Unit team. Since I first found out the truth about you, I’d been working to build a small team of my own and I’d already called in Paul and a couple of others to find and disarm the New York clones you told me about. There was a lot of background material on you, even without the hard evidence we destroyed with Burns. I used it to track down the device that UFO nut, Brody, used on Max and Tess when he took them hostage. I had the FBI labs miniaturize it, without telling them what it was really for.”

Jesse jerked his thumb over at Lonnie, slouching sullenly at the other end of the room and smiled with unexpected lust.

“Of course it’s you I love, Isobel, but when I found them there was no way I could resist having her, too, and she’s really something else in bed even without her powers, aren’t you, baby? Don’t pretend to pout at me, you know you love it.” He turned back to Isobel. “I’m a lucky guy. It’s a unique experience – you so innocent but with that special alien thing you do and Lonnie, your clone double, so…depraved. I must have you together, real soon…”

Lonnie gave him a dirty look, but said nothing and Isobel was too disgusted to speak. He continued on.

“After the explosion at the airforce base, I saw my chance to take over. The Special Unit team leaders had been called back into service on the captured UFO. They were killed and the rest were still scattered on other duties, but one of the Generals covertly called in two of the remaining agents to go after the aliens who killed his men.

“They were lower ranks, so they contacted me as their deep cover operative. I took over the Unit after their stupid Graduation operation failed and quietly disposed of them while I fielded my own team. I control the whole project now. The FBI don’t have a clue about what’s going on right under their noses.”

His smile was full of self-congratulation. Isobel itched to claw his eyes out.

“What about the General who hired the rogue Special Unit? He knows and I bet he’s got names and copies of the tape as evidence.”

“Tragically dead, the stress and excitement gave him a heart attack. All copies of the tape have been destroyed, except the one I have for…safekeeping. In fact, I’ve obtained pretty much all the evidence against you and Michael and Max. I’ve eliminated or neutralized everyone outside my team who knows about you. You’re safe with me now, Isobel.”

“I still don’t understand why you’ve done all this? You could have arranged things so we didn’t have to go on the run. We could have stayed quietly in Roswell or moved anywhere we wanted to in safety, since you say you have the evidence. Why put me – us – through all this?”

“Power, Isobel. I want power and you are my ticket to the very top. Now I have all of you aliens in my control and with the help of your special talents you and I will own the world. It will take time and careful planning, but together we can do it.”

“I’ll never help you, Jesse. I’d rather die.”

“Maybe you think you mean that, but could you really watch me torture your family, Isobel? That’s the question. All the time you help me with my plan I’ll guarantee their safety, but the minute one of you steps out of line the others will suffer. In fact, maybe I’ll arrange a little show for you now, just to prove I mean it. Let me see…Maria, I think. She has no powers and she’s expendable.”

Jesse called over to the medic who was still lying on the floor where he’d fallen, but was now conscious and listening attentively.

“Paul, you and Marty go get Maria and your…scalpels and bring them down here.”

He obeyed the order, climbing painfully to his feet and heading out of the door.

Isobel stood abruptly, too, and stared at Jesse in disbelief.

“Jesse, this isn’t really you. You like Maria. She always makes you laugh… You can’t mean to hurt her, you’re just trying to frighten me…”

He said nothing, just looked at back at her until a moment later the kitchen door was flung open and an angry Maria was shoved into the room, struggling and complaining loudly at Paul’s rough handling.

“Hey, man, I found this pretty thing listening outside the door. Then she tried to leave the party before the fun stuff begins…”

“No!”

Isobel’s cry of fear and horror finally brought rescuers rushing in with alien powers at the ready.

It was time to bring the nightmare to an end.

Kyle was first through the yard door, his hand already glowing with energy and aimed at Jesse, but his eyes were on Isobel, swaying on the verge of fainting with shock and horror. Maria shook off Paul’s restraining grip and rushed over to catch her and push her back onto a chair before she fell.

Michael’s first concern was to visually check out Maria to make sure she was unhurt, before blasting her captor against the wall with his powers, so hard that the man was shoved through the plasterboard into the hall outside.

A moment later, Rath stepped over his body and emerged coughing through the resulting cloud of dust and debris. When he could speak, he grinned over at Michael.

“Yo, bro. If’n youse goin’ inta the demolition business, ya gotta be more careful. Youse only just missed takin’ me down wit’ the wall.”

His comment didn’t attract any response from the others who were all intent on watching the drama now unfolding before them and he froze, too, when he looked around.

Jim Valenti had stopped in the yard doorway and surveyed the scene with his hard, lawman’s gaze. The shock of Michael’s blast had stopped everyone in their tracks, except for his son, who was relentlessly approaching Isobel’s treacherous husband with barely contained powers and lethal intent in his eyes.

Rising slowly from his chair, Jesse backed warily away from Kyle towards Lonnie, still leaning against the counter at the far end of the kitchen and watching with interest.

When he reached her, his eyes widened with surprise as her arm went round him to pull him back against her. She kissed his neck with slow sensuality than smiled with lazy mocking pleasure over his shoulder at her stunned audience, before suddenly pushing him contemptuously away, so that he stumbled and fell on his knees where he toppled slowly to the floor.

The wooden hilt of a knife she had used to make sandwiches earlier protruded from his back…

Lonnie looked over to Isobel, sitting dazed and blank-eyed with shock in Maria's protective arms, not yet able to take in the reality that her husband was dead. Her voice was almost gentle as she spoke.

“That low-life won’t trouble us again, girl.”

Rath strolled over and put his arm round Lonnie’s shoulders, giving her a slap on her ass and a noisy kiss on her mouth to show his pride in her act of revenge.

There was a long, fragile silence, broken by a baby’s cry in the hallway and Amy DeLuca appeared, stepping delicately over the rubble with little Zan in her arms. She took in the scene at a glance, then looked calmly across at her daughter.

“Maria, I’m so thankful that wicked, wicked man is dead. Now, you make tea for everyone. Michael and Kyle – you boys help Jim remove these bodies…somewhere else. Isobel, honey, you come with me to...freshen up. After that, we have to decide what to do about this whole mess.”

Her sweet, soft voice was the spur they needed to move again. Obeying her commands brought back some feeling of reality. Even Lonnie and Rath made a desultory attempt to clear a path through the rubble in the hallway.

Fifteen minutes later, in the family room that gave out onto the deck, Amy was passing out cups of tea to everyone when the glass door slid aside to reveal a dishevelled Liz.

The light spilling out across the deck showed Max following in her wake, cradling a badly injured Tess in his arms…

********

Chapter Seventy-One

Amy gave a small shriek, the cup she held falling to the floor unnoticed by her or the others. They were equally shocked at the sudden appearance of the three who had been forgotten in all the recent drama.

For an instant nobody moved, then Kyle and Jim hurried to clear a path for Max to carry Tess to the nearest couch, while Maria rushed forward to push a shivering Liz down into an armchair. Isobel stayed where she was, cuddling baby Zan and sitting close to Amy, while the dupes stood back looking warily on while the ex-sheriff knelt to examine the wound in Tess’s side.

Michael, expecting to hear that the FBI were still out there on the attack, strode over to Max demanding to know what had happened, ready to raise his defensive force shield to protect them all.

Max answered distractedly, his attention on the Sheriff’s hurried but expert examination of Tess’s wound.

“Liz and Tess were captured. Tess was shot, but an agent got away…”

A few minutes later, Tess’s eyelids fluttered open and her blue gaze seemed to search until she found Kyle, leaning over the back of the couch watching as his father gave competent first-aid to the tiny blonde who had become family so easily and then just as easily betrayed their trust.

At this moment, there was no room in him for memories of her past actions, only a great lump of pity and sadness swelling in his chest. With a huge effort she lifted a hand towards him and he took it gently, squeezing as comfortingly as he could.

“Kyle - my baby – where is he? I need to see him…”

Almost before Tess finished her plea, Isobel had moved to kneel beside the couch, holding Zan securely as he eagerly held out his arms to his mother. Tess couldn’t move easily, but she slowly reached out and stroked her son’s face, smiling back at him through her pain, the shared love shining in their eyes as the little boy returned her gaze.

Jim, having made Tess as comfortable as he could, had moved back to join the group of silent onlookers across the room. Now he turned to Max and spoke in an urgent undertone.

“She’s dying. Can’t you do anything to help her?”

Jim looked questioningly at Max, his eyes widening in shock as he registered the misshapen head and distorted features for the first time. However, he said nothing about that and merely waited for an answer.

The alien king shook his head, his eyes locked onto the small tableau around the couch. His reply was soft, sorrowful and full of regret.

“I already tried. It didn’t work. Now all she wants is to say goodbye to our son…”

Liz looked across at him from her armchair, her eyes a little warmer than of late but her expression still enigmatic.
Tess spoke quietly into the silence.

“Max, I know you want to heal me, but I can’t let you. My death now is the best chance I can give our baby. It wasn’t only the FBI after me. I-I think Khivar may have some kind of trace on me from my time on Antar. I’ve known almost since I came back to Earth that, live or die, I’d have to part with my baby so Khivar won’t find him, but I needed to make sure he would be safe, not abandoned to strangers. If Khivar finds out that Zan is the true heir he will use that to come after him and I won’t let that happen. I haven’t got much time but I want to say a few things before I…leave. The first is that I didn’t mean to cause Alex’s death but there’s nothing I can do or say that will bring him back and that I truly regret. I wish I’d done a lot of things different – but then I wouldn’t have my son and he means everything to me.”

Tess stopped to take a painful breath, then struggled to continue. Catching sight of Liz staring at her from the armchair a few feet away seemed to revive her strength and a wicked light appeared in her eyes as she smiled at her old enemy.

“Max really does love you, Liz – but he really loves me too and I’m not sorry for trying everything in my power to take him away from you. I won’t be around to protect our baby but Max will do that now and, just so you both know, there won’t be any global alien invasion to worry about. The end of the world scenario with Future Max was a mind-warp to split you up. I really thought you’d work that one out, it was such a no-brainer, but I guess you aren’t as smart as you think you are…”

A coughing fit shook her slight frame and a tiny gush of blood trickled from the side of her mouth. A trace of fear clouded her eyes, but Tess weakly gestured for Zan and Isobel gently placed the child into the crook of her arm, so that he lay quietly against her body, gazing solemnly up at his mother as she made a huge effort to continue speaking.

Tess’s face turned towards Kyle like a flower to the sun. For an eternal moment it seemed that, for Tess, he and Zan were the only people who existed in the world. Then she spoke, in a painful, breathless whisper and her words were meant for him alone.

“Kyle, I’m glad we finally got to talk. Thank you for giving me the only true happiness I’ve known in this life. I was so stupid to throw it away, but maybe there’ll be another chance for us in our future lives…”

Kyle leaned forward and gently kissed her lips in what they both knew was farewell. As he pulled back, her gaze slid away to seek her son and she smiled at the child through her tears.

“I wish I could stay for you, my baby. I love you so, so much, but I would only put you in danger and I need you to be safe. I’m leaving you with your father and good people I know will love and protect you… Please don’t forget me. I’ll never forget you wherever I am. We’ll be together again some day. Remember I love you…”

Tess closed her blue eyes for the last time and her baby started to sob quietly in the silent room.

Nobody moved for a long time; then Amy stood up and went over to little Zan, taking him into her arms and soothing him against her shoulder as she began to pace around the room.
Everyone else continued to stare at Tess’s lifeless body in shocked silence, lost in their thoughts until Jim Valenti moved to lay a hand on Kyle’s shoulder. His son nodded in understanding. He reached for the throw draped across the back of the couch and together father and son carefully arranged it to cover the remains of the tiny alien blonde who had moved into their home and their hearts for a while. In the last moments of her life, Tess had once again become family to them.

Kyle lifted the still form and followed his father out of the room where they placed Tess on a bed in one of the rooms at the top of the stairs. The silence among the rest of the group continued until the two returned a few minutes later. Then they all found seats, carefully avoiding the couch.

“What happened?”

It was Maria whose whisper broke the silence. She had moved next to Michael and made no effort to disguise her need to be close to him. He stroked the back of her hand with his thumb in silent comfort, but his attention was focused between Max and Liz, waiting for an answer.
Liz moved restlessly under his cold gaze, clearly uncomfortable.

“Do we have to stay in here? Can’t we go into the kitchen or somewhere else to talk?”

Amy explained that the kitchen was wrecked in the earlier confrontation with Jesse and the group were forced to stay where they were, but she didn’t go into details. It was clear that everyone wanted an explanation for what had happened to Tess.

Max finally roused himself to speak when it was clear that Liz wasn’t going to.

“Tess and I waited out back by the deck, but she was in deep shock, scared about losing her powers as well as desperate to find Zan and she went a little crazy, running off back towards the cottage before I could stop her. Then Liz called on my cell asking what was happening, saying she didn’t like being alone in the RV, so while I went after Tess and tried to calm her down, Liz came out to join us. Then while we were all talking Liz and Tess got into an argument and next thing I know they were rolling on the ground in the darkness, scratching and fighting like cats… I – I was trying to decide what to do when two agents came out of the shadows–”

Liz interrupted at this point, carrying on the story with no more emotion in her voice than if she’d been explaining some routine science procedure in class at school.

“I felt someone drag me away from her and I thought it was Max but it wasn’t, it was a stranger and he held a knife to my throat. I was so…surprised I didn’t even think to use my powers. Then I saw another man had grabbed Tess, pointing a gun at her. She was fighting him. Max was standing with his hand raised ready to attack but he – he hesitated between us…”

Liz paused and bit her lip, avoiding Max’s intense stare.

“Then he used his powers to save…me – and Tess was the one who was shot…”

Michael exchanged a look with Kyle and then they both stood up in a hurry to run out through the kitchen, checking on the bodies they had left outside in the darkness a while ago. Ten minutes later, they were back. Michael was breathing hard as he reported what they’d found.

“Jesse and his agents are all accounted for – including the one we tied up in the cottage who’s now lying out there dead – all except that doctor, Paul. Looks like he escaped – one of the cars has gone, too.”

Jim climbed wearily to his feet, his craggy face sad and serious, but set in the determined lines they all remembered from his days as Sheriff of Roswell.

“Boys, we gotta check the grounds and make sure there are no more surprises left for us tonight. Ladies, maybe you could see that the house is secure and the place restored to the way it should be?”

Isobel nodded at him, understanding that he meant she should use her powers to ensure there were no clues left behind to reveal what had gone on around here.

An hour later they were all gathered in the family room again, this time ready to make plans. Jim stood up and paced around the room, drawing all eyes to him when he finally spoke.

“Tess has been …laid to rest. There’s no evidence left of what happened here tonight. The kitchen has been restored and all traces of the Special Unit’s presence have been…destroyed.”

All the guys in the group, except Rath, shifted uneasily at that, but nobody spoke. Everyone understood that what had been done was the only way to secure their safety, however harrowing it had been disposing of the bodies. Jim hesitated for a moment and continued.

“The agent who escaped took with him a box of evidence from the RV. Luckily, when he kidnapped her to look after baby Zan, Jesse showed Amy all the stuff he had collected, to prove to her the existence of aliens. She’s checked and thinks that the agent only got some minor stuff tonight, but we can’t be certain. It’s out there and may still come back to bite us some day, so be on guard at all times.”

Amy made a small, involuntary sound in her throat but otherwise nobody commented on what they already understood would be a routine part of their future lives.

The blunt warning of their continued danger seemed to have drained what energy the ex-sheriff had left and he dropped back onto the couch beside Amy, leaving the field clear for Michael to speak his thoughts aloud.

“I know we’re all tired and need to get some sleep, but first we have to make plans – decide whether we stick together or go our separate ways. Travelling as a large group will only make us more visible to our enemies. I don’t know how long it will take for the FBI to notice the disappearance of so many of their agents, if Jesse had hidden his tracks as well as he claimed. My guess is, since Jesse privately recruited his own men and we’ve removed all the evidence of what went on here, it won’t be easy for Paul to prove his story. So we probably have some time – but it’s a risk, so my vote is that we split up for a while and lie low.”

The group around him stirred in involuntary protest, so he hurried on before any one could muster an argument.

“The good news is we have more resources than we started out with when we left Roswell: the Chevy, the pick-up, Tess’s SUV, the van, an RV and two FBI trucks. Take some time to think about it and decide for yourselves what you want to do. We don’t have to make a final decision right now. There are some other issues we still need to work on before we leave this place.”

He looked over to where Max was sitting, still displaying the signs of stress and exhaustion that he had shown ever since they had met up with him again, his alien features creased into an anxious frown.

The sheriff followed Michael’s glance and spoke up.

“Michael is correct that we all have major decisions to make, but first I think Max has to…er…bond with his son, is that right?”

Max slowly stood up, eager but uncertain now that the moment had come. Amy moved to hand over little Zan, who was wide-eyed and watchful, reluctant to leave her warm arms for the unfamiliar ones of his father. However, once settled against his chest, the little boy quieted and gazed up at Max with a strangely knowing look for one so young.

Max cleared his throat uncertainly and looked across at Isobel and Michael for support. His sister smiled back in encouragement while Michael nodded impatiently.

“Get on with it, Maxwell. No sense in waiting any longer. Time to put the Royal balance right…”

Even as he said the words, Michael found that they held more significance than he’d intended. The room fell silent as everyone unconsciously held their breaths.

Father and son gazed at each other for what seemed a long time, then Max raised his hand and solemnly placed it on Zan’s forehead.

For a moment nothing happened.

Then the glowing cipher of Antarian kingship appeared in the space between them and it’s soft light expanded to envelope them both so that it was impossible for the watchers to see what happened within the opaque column of swirling mist in the center of the room.

When it finally dispersed into nothingness, Max still stood there with his son in his arms, but his familiar human face was back and little Zan slept peacefully on his shoulder.

Max immediately headed out of the room to find some privacy and the others were left staring wordlessly at the door as it closed behind him. All the alien drama of the past few days was suddenly over and it was hard to take in right away.

The pause that followed Max’s departure lengthened into an uncomfortable silence – there were so many personal issues still out there, but it seemed nobody was prepared to make the first move.

Then Maria gave a heavy sigh, admitting to herself that if she didn’t have the courage to act now then she might never have another chance to clear the air and would regret it all her life… So she took a deep breath, stood up and looked seriously over at Liz, still sitting quietly in the armchair.

“Come on, Elizabeth Parker, let’s go see if there’s any ice-cream in the freezer…”

Liz’s eyes lit up with genuine warmth. She climbed out of the deep armchair and quickly followed Maria out of the room and into the restored kitchen.

The two girls faced each other across the table, the ice cream suggestion abandoned or forgotten in the tension of their confrontation.

Liz spoke first, rushing hopefully but nervously into speech, painfully aware that this time the wary girl sitting across from her was no longer the insecure Maria of their childhood, but a faintly hostile, unpredictable stranger – and the cause was Liz’s own recent behaviour. All she wanted now, however, was to make amends, to wipe away the bad memories between them, to start again.

“I’m so, soooo sorry for what I did. Please believe me - you know I’d never want to deliberately hurt you. You are my best friend forever – I want things to go back the way they were – the way they always should be. Tell me, how can I put things right between us? I’ve needed to talk to you for so long and now I-I don’t know where to start…Help me out here, Maria?”

The plea was genuine; Maria could see that Liz literally didn’t have a clue about where to start to repair their friendship, but Maria knew she couldn’t let her heart melt in sympathy this time or she’d be lost and fall straight back into the wacky side-kick role she’d struggled so hard to escape. Why should Liz have an easy ride after all the hurt she’d inflicted? It was time for some honesty between them now, not least her own. She hardened her heart, narrowed her eyes and let her outrage and resentment show.

“Okay…first off, how about explaining why you went out to steal my boyfriend? That’s so not best friend behaviour…”

Liz was not expecting such a direct question so soon and turned bright red in guilty confusion, clearly groping to find an answer. Maria simply waited with a sardonic stare for Liz to get command of herself.

Liz hid her burning face in her hands to give herself a moment to think. Her first reaction was to wonder how much Maria knew or guessed about the feelings she still had for Michael even after the Balance. Her second was desperately to hide it so that Maria should not be hurt any further by the emotional betrayal. It was the one secret that Maria must never find out or Liz really would lose her best friend forever. She finally began to stammer out some kind of explanation, anxious to avoid revealing any clue that might give herself away.

“It’s just, well, everything seemed to get out of control. I thought I had everything I wanted, then Max… Max called out Tess’s name when we were – you know – and that’s when I couldn’t take the pain any more. I’d lost everything, given up my dreams, my family, for Max and all for what? For nothing – I gave up my whole life for a guy who loved someone else. He even got her pregnant and I forgave him. Why is that? What made me so stupid and needy that I couldn’t see what was happening?”

Liz had by this time forgotten everything in re-telling her woes, reaching across to Maria, reliving her anguish in pouring out her stored up pain. Despite herself, Maria couldn’t repress a pang of sympathy and soothingly stroked the pitiful hands clinging to hers. However, a cool part of her reason still resisted capitulation and she waited as Liz continued.

“I decided to rebel, to think that I should put my own needs first for a change – stop deluding myself about Max, who clearly wasn’t anywhere near the perfect guy I wanted him to be. I wanted to be strong, to start exploring for myself, try find the me I always planned to be before the alien abyss opened up and we all fell in… But then it all went wrong, Maria. The more scared and angry I became, the more another side of me emerged. It suddenly felt so good to be free to act on all those bad thoughts I was having and go for what I wanted without caring who I hurt in the process.”

Liz’s eyes, which had glazed over while she re-lived her emotional journey in her mind, suddenly focused with disconcerting directness on Maria.

“Okay, I admit I was jealous. I expected to be a queen – ok, a queen in exile – but Michael and Max seemed to switch places after we left Roswell and now you had everything I ever wanted, while I ended up with nothing, not even an education. In my anger and jealousy, I only saw what I thought was rightfully mine and I set out to get it. Only Michael wasn’t – wasn’t interested…”

Liz’s voice broke for a moment, but she hurried on, hoping that Maria hadn’t noticed.

“Whatever I did that hurt you, I’m sorry. I can’t remember clearly what happened that last time in the motel room. I just remember a blinding headache and dreams about the Crashdown, then I woke up in…in Tess’s house. I do know I’m missing a big chunk of time, but everything since I woke up has been so crazy that I’m only just beginning to process it all in my mind…”

Liz looked so puzzled and distressed that Maria moved round the table to sit beside her and give her a hug. The big confession hadn’t told Maria anything she didn’t already know, but she was so tired of the emotional strain of it all that she found it easier to let it go and start afresh than hold onto the all anger and resentment that had built up against Liz in the past weeks (years, if she was honest…). Liz was obviously not telling everything, and things could never be the same between them, but Maria just didn’t care anymore. All she really wanted to do was find Michael and have him wrap his arms around her so the world would go away for a while and give them some peace…

Meanwhile, she sat beside Liz while they discussed what had happened during and after the Balance ritual; then they shared a few tears before Maria diplomatically remembered the ice cream. A search of the freezer proved unexpectedly rewarding –Jesse’s Special Unit had a serious ice cream habit – so the two girls sat at the table, each with a tub of their chosen flavour. Liz kept to her old vow and passed over her favorite vanilla to pick bitter chocolate while Maria had a sudden craving for pistachio.

They finally dug their spoons into the luscious, creamy sweetness in companionable silence, both relieved they had begun to repair their fractured friendship and content for the moment to let time take it’s course in whatever the uncertain future held...

“…but if you ever even think about going after my boyfriend again, I swear I will tear you apart with my bare hands. Comprende?”

Liz heard the unmistakeable threat in Maria’s voice and pain stabbed through her heart.

She knew with blinding clarity that, even after the alien healing stones had restored balance to her mind, her love for Michael was real; but he had no interest in her and if Maria even suspected her true feelings their friendship would be at an end and that was the one loss that she truly couldn’t bear.

So she smiled weakly at her friend, took a big bite of bitter chocolate ice cream and was almost grateful for the distraction of physical pain as the intense cold froze her sinuses…

Across the hallway, Michael looked over at the two dupes who were watching him expectantly. He knew what they were waiting for and thought that since they had kept their side of the bargain, there was no reason not to keep his side of the deal. However, he was still uncertain about using his healing powers on others, and wasn’t about to risk making a fool of himself in front of the whole group, so he had herded the two dupes out into the room previously used as the security center.

The surveillance equipment that had been present earlier had gone, destroyed in the cleanup operation along with the body of the agent whom Lonnie had killed. The room still held a shiver of unpleasant memory for Michael, but he ignored it to concentrate on his current challenge.

He waved Lonnie over to a chair, carefully hiding the apprehension he felt at this task of healing for which he felt entirely unprepared.

“Ladies first.” He ignored her mocking, provocative smirk. “Show me where the scar is, so I can dissolve the implant.”

She obediently gathered her hair away from the side of her head behind her left ear to reveal a small red scar at the base of her skull. Michael reached out a tentative hand to touch it, preparing his mind to block a torrent of unpleasant images, and to his surprise it worked. He allowed his consciousness to sink in a little further, tracing the scar below the skin and through the bone to where the distinctive molecular shape of an alien object was lodged. He wasted no time in dissolving the implant into blood and bone, using it to repair the damage even as he retreated back into himself.

Lonnie was smiling at him, a genuine, happy smile that was disconcertingly like Isobel’s so that he blinked in confusion for a moment before turning to Rath.

A few minutes later, his duplicate was grinning happily back at him, too. Both had the same green glow of energy surrounding them that showed they had their powers back.

“Thanks, bro. We wasn’t sure you wuz gonna keep the faith, but you came thru fo’ us and we ain’t gonna fergit that inna hurry, ya get me?”

Rath gave him a mock-affectionate cuff that nearly sent him flying and Lonnie giggled. It was clear that both dupes were immensely relieved, surprised and even grateful that Michael had kept his side of the bargain.

All three sprawled onto the chairs, Michael privately pleased and relieved that his healing attempts had gone so smoothly and the dupes still high on their release from slavery.

Rath idly asked the question that was already beginning to worry Michael.

“Yo, watcha gonna do next, bro? I guess nobody wants to split, huh? You’s stuck wid ridin’ herd on da Mayberry dudes?”

Not bothering to deny a fate he suspected was inevitable, Michael soberly agreed.

“Yeah, I guess we’ll all have to go hide out with you in the New York sewers until the FBI stops hunting for us…”

Rath laughed nervously, unsure from Michael’s deadpan expression whether he was joking or not.

“Hey, don’t hafta do that, if’n ya don’t want to. Sounds like some kinda Mayberry hell to me… Nah, listen up, bro. Lonnie and me, we got the mob connections to set youse up with new identities…gonna cost ya some, though. Whaddaya say?”

Michael brightened up instantly and almost cracked a smile.

“Sounds like a plan. Tell me more…”

Back in the family room, Kyle quickly found that he could no longer tolerate the company of a pre-occupied Isobel, a shell-shocked Amy, and his father who was quietly taking a nap, so he made his way out to the deck into the bright moonlight that had reappeared now that Isobel no longer influenced the weather.

Wandering down to the lake in the cold, shadowy light he jumped nervously at every rustle in the bushes lining the path and avoided the direction that led to the cottage. He had searched the grounds himself earlier with the others, but still he kept a suspicious eye out for danger. He knew that from now on he always would, no matter how safe his surroundings appeared.

He sat down on the end of the short dock and looked out over the still water, the path of silvery moonlight leading from his feet to the full white globe hanging above him in the star-filled heavens.

Barely an hour ago, Tess’s body had slid gently into the waters beneath that same shining path, sent peacefully on her way back into the infinite possibilities of Eternity.

While Kyle and his father, alone of the group, stood in silent farewell, Max had used his powers to gently dissolve her mortal remains into the depths of the cool, bright water under the faint ‘V’ pattern of stars that marked the aliens’ ancestral planet. He and Kyle had both stayed on for some time afterwards, each lost in his own thoughts.

Max had been the first to depart.

Now Kyle found himself back here again, his thoughts entirely gentle this time and strong within him the need to meditate on Eternity while sitting right there on the moonlight path
between the Heavens and Earth.

Time passed and he slowly became aware of the world again, a world that now contained another quiet, intense presence nearby. Isobel said nothing, waiting for him to speak, but Kyle didn’t want to break the vast silence of the darkest hour before dawn, so they simply sat companionably together in the last glimmerings of moonset, not too close but not so far from each other that they couldn’t reach out and touch hands if they wished.

Finally, Isobel could stand it no more. The true extent of Jesse’s betrayal had left her in shock for a while, but Amy had provided a shoulder to cry on and given her some valuable advice from her own wide experience in dealing with men and heartbreak.

Then the beauty and silence of the night while she had waited for Kyle’s long meditation to end had given her the space to sort out her confused emotions. Isobel had finally worked out just what – and who – she wanted, at last. It was just finding the right words to tell Kyle…

Max had lain for a long time in one of the bedrooms upstairs, holding his sleeping son protectively against his heart. He stared at the ceiling, thinking about the past and the future, trying to make some sense out of the mess that was still his life even though his immediate life-threatening problem had now been resolved. When he eventually felt calm enough, he consigned Zan to Amy’s motherly care while he went to seek out Liz. While there was still unfinished business between them he couldn’t make any plans to move on.

He found her once more curled up in the armchair in the family room, her eyes closed and apparently asleep. Nobody else was around, so Max took the opportunity that he had been waiting for and sat down on the couch facing her. She didn’t stir, but he knew she was aware of his presence.

“We need to talk, Liz.”

“You may need to talk, Max. I don’t. I don’t want to listen anymore, either, so just go away.”

“No. You know there’s still unfinished business between us, Liz, however much you try to deny it. I hate myself for hurting you, but it was never deliberate. I love you and I know you still love me.”

Liz opened her eyes and wearily surveyed him. She had to admit he looked a lot healthier than the last time she’d seen him. His handsome, human features had been restored, along with the old shy, but determined expression. She was shocked and horrified to feel a familiar pang of – oh, god, was he right, could it still be…love? Although this time there was none of the burning intensity that nowadays colored her secret feelings for Michael, she found she – incredibly, unbelievably, but undeniably – still had the hots for Max…

Blushing, she recoiled from his touch, confused and terrified that he could see her memories, as once he had been so easily able to do…

Max, far from seeing into her thoughts, read her reaction as a stubborn refusal to hear him out.

“Just know I’m not going to give you up, Liz Parker. We belong together, soul mates whether you like it or not.”

Liz sat up and faced him at last, her eyes serious.

“I know you love me, Max. You proved it when you saved me tonight – it must have been a horrific decision to have to choose between us…”

Max interrupted her, his voice so quiet she could barely hear it.

“It wasn’t a difficult choice at all, Liz. My choice was you and it always will be. But still – I loved Tess, too, and that will never change either. I loved her and yet I hated her at the same time. She was always there for me when I needed somebody and she is the mother of my son. I can’t pretend those feelings don’t exist but they are a candle against the light of your sun. Can’t you accept it and move on with me?

“I want us to share our lives completely like we planned when we had to leave Roswell. Everything that happened since then has been because Tess used me – used us – as her puppets to save our son. I don’t agree with her methods, but the outcome could still be good for all of us if you let it...”

Liz sighed and looked guiltily down at her tightly clasped hands. Max’s arguments had moved her in ways he had no clue about. She now understood all too well how it was possible to be in love with two people at the same time and she had some empathy with his situation. Her feelings for Max had faded against her new, unrequited love for Michael, but they were still there. She just had to accept that, like his, her heart would always be divided.

However, her jealous, unremitting hatred for her enemy, Tess, was another – entirely separate – issue, not so easily resolved.

“I actually do understand about your feelings for…her, Max. But as for moving on, I wish it were that easy…”

“It is easy, Liz. All you have to do is say yes. Say you’ll marry me.”

“What about your son? Is he part of the deal? I’m not ready to be a mother, Max, and certainly not to Tess’s son.”

Max recoiled.

“Liz, what are you saying? He’s my son, I love him and I’m responsible for him. Of course Zan is part of the deal. How could he not be?”

“It’s just too much to ask of me – I’m sure he’s a great kid, but he’s a constant reminder that his mother killed Alex and yet still owns part of your heart. It wouldn’t be fair on any of us to try to form a family unit. I’m truly sorry, Max, but it just won’t work...”

Liz’s sorrowful brown eyes filled with tears at yet more heartbreak and she quickly fled the room, leaving Max alone in shock.

Out on the dock, Isobel had finally found the courage to tell Kyle that she had been blind or stupid to confuse love and friendship for so long.

His reaction wasn’t exactly what she’d expected. His smile had been so full of incredulous delight that she didn’t notice the pain in his eyes.

“Isobel, you don’t know how much I’ve dreamed of hearing you say that to me and I don’t think it will be a big surprise that I love you, too…but-”

Kyle stopped to take a deep breath. Isobel smiled blindingly and leaned in to kiss him. It took a long time, but he finally managed to tear himself away – too far away for Isobel’s liking. She was faintly puzzled. She’d never had a reaction like that to her kisses before, and she knew this one had been the most incredible experience for them both.

Kyle took several deep breaths to clear his head and told himself firmly that what he had to do was the only way to keep his sanity intact, although a large part of his brain was screaming at him that it was already too late.

“Isobel, I don’t know how to say this, and I know you’ll think I’ve lost my mind, but – even though I love you with all my heart and soul – your timing isn’t great. What I’m trying to say is …I can’t survive a relationship with you right now…”

Isobel was struck speechless. She heard his words but the meaning wasn’t sinking in. Surely this wasn’t…rejection? He’d admitted he loved her and she knew it was true. Had he suddenly lost his mind?

Kyle was looking more serious than she’d ever seen him before, even under alien dream attack.

“I haven’t actually lost my mind. Or maybe I have. I don't know. I just didn’t explain myself too well, I guess. That incredible kiss…”

Isobel waited in offended silence for an explanation. This wasn’t turning out to be the ecstatic, romantic meeting of souls that she had planned and she didn’t like it one bit. Kyle’s explanation had better be good.

“Isobel, it isn’t that I don’t think we can have a great future together someday. I do. We can. I just can’t help thinking we’re rushing into it too soon…”

Isobel fought to conceal her hurt and outrage, but Kyle saw her lips quiver with the effort. It nearly broke his own heart to see it, but somewhere inside himself a part of his brain was annoyed at her cool assumption that he would just fall into her arms when she chose the moment to declare herself and he was, besides, uncertain that her love was as deep and real as his. It was this fear that made him jump up to pace around the small dock, trying to explain, convince and comfort her all at the same time.

“Just give us time, Isobel. Two weeks ago, you were madly in love with your husband and until tonight heartbroken at his betrayal. Now suddenly here you are in love with me. Heartbreak takes time to heal and two weeks just doesn’t cut it. Are you sure that you don’t just need me for comfort while you get through the pain?”

As much as she wanted to run away and hide in hurt humiliation and at the same time stay to prove to Kyle that her love for him was the real thing, Isobel found the grace to stop and think seriously about what he was saying. She knew inside herself that her response could save or destroy the relationship she had played with so carelessly when she didn’t understand that it meant everything to her.

The silence lengthened while she thought about what to say and he waited for his fate to be decided.

“I accept that all of what you say is right, but I also know you’re wrong. Believe me, when true love arrives, there’s no mistaking it for anything else. I feel that way about you and I know I always will. I just had to find out the slow, hard way. Now I have to prove it to you and I will. What do I have to do, Kyle?”

Kyle heard the heartfelt sincerity in her quiet voice and nearly gave in right there, but he knew they still needed time and space to shake off the ghosts of the past.

“When we leave here tomorrow, I’m going to split from the group and go my own way. Maybe you should too, if you get the chance. I think we should meet up in, say, six months. Then, if you still feel the same way, we’ll be together. If not, then we make other plans, okay?”

“I agree, since I really have no choice. I don’t think any of our relationships has a chance if we all have to travel around the country like an alien carnival, dragging our emotional baggage with us…”

Six months was a lifetime for them both, but Isobel was willing to endure a cold, lonely existence without him if it would save their relationship, in jeopardy before it had even begun.

“Kyle, where will you go?”

“I’ll wait to see what the group decides in the morning before I make plans.”

Isobel moved to pull him down against her and he didn’t make any protest, sliding his arm around her shoulders in the comforting way he’d done so many times before – only this time their feelings were very different. As the pre-dawn light invaded their world, Isobel stirred and whispered against his mouth.

“At least kiss me again before we part? Give me something to keep me warm in the long cold nights…?”

He could do nothing less than obey but when their passion grew too heated, she drew away and silently disappeared back to the house, leaving him alone with his thoughts.

********

Chapter Seventy-Two

Maria badly wanted to talk to her mom. So she hunted through the house until she found the bedroom where little Zan lay sleeping peacefully, watched over by Amy DeLuca.

In all the events of the past night, the mystery of how Amy had come to be caught up in Jesse’s schemes had been put on hold, but now finally they had a little time to catch up.

Amy was stretched out on the bed and Maria came over to curl up beside her mother as she often had before, late on Sunday mornings back in Roswell when she was growing up. It felt strangely comforting, like being a little girl again, but she knew those days were long gone.

Maria tried to keep things light, knowing that if both DeLucas got emotional, things could get a little too loud and explosive. She went straight to the point.

“So, Mom. Things are back on again with Jim Valenti, huh? Taking a road trip, no less…”

Amy blushed and giggled, then turned serious.

“He’s just a wonderful man, Maria, so brave and strong. If he hadn’t been there with me – well, I hate to think what would have become of us…”

“Just what did happen? How come you’re here at all…with Jim and with Tess’s baby, too?”

Amy explained that about a week after the Graduation events Jesse had kidnapped her and Jim from the Valenti house, where she had been trying to make him tell more of what she was convinced he knew about Maria’s disappearance. They had been held prisoner in the RV; Jim had been kept in chains while she had been forced to take care of him and baby Zan.

Jesse had actually apologised to her during the first evening on the road, acting like a very polite reasonable young man. He explained that he was with the FBI on a covert operation and Isobel and her friends were in danger. Jim was in on the secrets too, but wouldn’t talk to him. Jesse needed to find the group fast to protect them. It was just a lucky break when he found Amy interrogating Jim, because his men had no experience in caring for a small child on a long road trip.

“When he explained that the baby’s mother was that sweet girl Tess Harding and the father was Max Evans, I was so surprised. But, of course, it answered the question of why she had disappeared from the Valentis’ home so suddenly all those months ago, poor little thing. I suspected he was right about Jim Valenti’s involvement, too. I always knew Jim Valenti had more secrets than he let on and I didn’t trust him any more… Of course, there was nothing I could do right then, except pretend to go along with it until I saw a chance to escape. I couldn’t leave an innocent baby at the mercy of those horrible men, either.”

“So what happened next?”

“Jim was still out cold and Jesse cooked a meal for the two of us while one of his men drove the RV, the cab screened off from us by a glass and steel security barrier. Later, after we’d finished the dishes, Jesse brought out two boxes of photos, tapes and documents that he said proved that aliens existed – and he claimed were in fact Max and Isobel Evans and Michael.”

Maria raised an eyebrow but said nothing.

“Well, okay, Maria, I admit aliens have helped me to put food on our table, but to expect me to believe they actually existed – and that these aliens were your high school friends… I could only think Jesse had gone crazy when Isobel left him and now had somehow come up with this weird Roswell-type theory. Every one knows the Government can manufacture all kinds of fake evidence when it wants to. I’ve been an activist too long to be taken in by it and I told Jesse to his face that it would take more than a few photographs to convince me.”

Maria laughed out loud.

“Go, Mom. I wish I’d seen it…”

“He seemed annoyed that I didn’t believe him, but he didn’t argue and simply left me alone after that. The next thing I remember was when I woke up in the night, with little Zan crying in his cot and Jim Valenti awake and in chains on the bed beside me.”

Maria grinned. Her mom had sounded pleased at that memory, even as she reported the events with remembered anger and indignation.

“Jim finally convinced me to talk to him and I told him what had happened. He was quiet for a very long time, then explained that what Jesse had said about aliens was true and more. He told me that you had been in on the secret ever since the beginning when Liz was shot. He told me a lot of other things, including the fact that he had been changed by Max saving his life and might someday develop alien powers himself. I didn’t want to believe him, but I went along with it. I realized Jesse was deranged and much more dangerous than Jim Valenti. Jim said we should go on as if this was a normal road trip because it seemed that Jesse was taking us to find our kids, whatever he else had planned. We were on the road for nearly a week before we arrived here and Jim melted his chains and escaped last night. He met Michael’s twin, Rath and you know what happened next.”

“Mom, how did you find out the alien thing was real?”

“Jim proved it to me. Life in the RV had settled into a routine. Zan was an adorable baby, so cute and playful, and Jim was a perfect gentleman. We were prisoners and during the endless days and nights in a confined space we finally became…close…again. The men fed us and gave us anything we needed, even allowed us to step outside the RV except when we were near towns. Jesse never showed up again. It wasn’t until Jim accidentally set fire to the dishcloth with his bare hand when he got angry and frustrated, that he confessed his hands had started to glow green with alien power sometimes. I had to accept that I wasn’t dreaming after all… and now I know it’s all true and my own daughter is in love with an real, live alien…”

“He’s just Michael, Mom. He’s special to me for far more important things than just because he comes from another planet.”

Amy smiled mistily at her and Maria put her arms around her mother and hugged her close. More words were unnecessary.

Zan woke up and needed changing, and this naturally led to cooing and giggling baby games with him, so the soft tap on the door sometime later had to be repeated more loudly before a subdued Max was admitted to join the romp with his son.

Maria excused herself to go freshen up before starting to prepare breakfast for ten hungry people. The house was quiet. She guessed most people must have found beds or couches to catch a little sleep while they could. It was still a little early for anyone to be up and about.

Michael was deeply asleep somewhere, so she didn’t disturb him – he had every right to a few hours of privacy before he had to face the future again. They still needed to discuss what they were going to do, because although she had privately agreed with him that the group should split up, at least for a while, she didn’t know what form that would take or even what they would do if the others all voted to stay together in a group.

While she was thinking about all the possibilities, Liz joined her and they began to set out cereals, milk, eggs, bacon and bread ready for toast. The familiar moves as they fell into the old Crashdown routine helped to push them back towards their old easy friendship after their long talk in the night.

Setting out juice and glasses as Maria made coffee, Liz confided that Max had asked her to marry him and had expected her to help raise Tess’s son, but she had refused. When Mara instantly pulled her down to sit at the table and demanded all the details Liz breathed a secret sigh of relief. She longed for their old closeness to be back for good and was grateful that Maria seemed to have forgiven her enough to be on her side again.

“…and I still have feelings for Max – can you believe it, Maria, after everything that’s happened? I mean, nothing like I did before, thank God, but you know, when I saw him tonight, my first reaction was that he was hot! What is wrong with me?”

Maria sympathised – Liz was too young to be a mother and it really wasn’t fair of Max to expect her to raise Tess’s child – but she was privately relieved. If Liz still had feelings for Max then the crush Liz had developed on Michael probably had just been a part of her emotional breakdown… Still, Maria was wary now and would always be watchful. Aside from that, she tried to give her friend the best advice she could.

“Maybe you need to take a break from love and just date and have fun for a few years – I mean, when it’s safe to get on with our lives. Have you thought about what you want to do next?”

Before Liz could answer, Isobel came in to the kitchen looking happy, but a little subdued. Her news distracted the other girls and even Liz, although surprised, was genuinely pleased.

Maria was really happy for her, even though she privately thought that Kyle was right to be cautious, given Isobel’s previous form in matters of love. Still, she was optimistic that they would be together eventually, although sad to think that Kyle would be going off alone into the world for six whole months. She would miss him the most of all, because he had been such a good friend to her. Michael would miss him, too. It was the first real, uncomplicated close male friendship her alien boyfriend had ever had and it had been good for him, lightened him up in ways a girlfriend never could. Breaking up their friendly little group of four was going to be painful for them all.

As she had these thoughts, she felt Michael finally stir and she hardly waited until he had awakened to full consciousness before she told him about Kyle’s decision and reminded him that they had decisions of their own to make.

She was a little surprised when he outlined a plan already devised and up for discussion. Maria hadn’t caught any of his private thoughts about it but found she was not too sorry. It seemed they were able to control their connection more easily now than when they had first linked. It gave them space from each other, which both needed at times.

When she couldn’t see any major flaws in his ideas, she told him that she would be happy to go along with it, laughing at his undisguised relief that she hadn’t taken his plan apart and beaten him round the ears with it.

***Remember my mom’s here, so any ear-beating will come from her. Hide the newspapers, Spaceboy. You’ve run off with her baby girl, so she’s loaded for bear…***

***She should thank me for taking you off her hands…***

***You tell her that when you see her, why don’t you? Just make sure I’m around to see the fun***

***Watch out, Blondie, I’m coming to get you for that. There’s still time to hide…***

***No, there isn’t, Spaceboy. Everyone’s arriving for breakfast. The coffee smells great. You’ll be late and all the food will be gone if you don’t hurry up… ***

***Maybe I’ll skip breakfast and eat you instead…***

***Mmmm, good plan, but save me for later – I’m sure my mom will comment if we’re late for the meeting***

People began to straggle in for breakfast, in varying states of consciousness, until everyone had been fed and the family room was full of serious faces, waiting for someone to start the proceedings. The numbers had grown to include two adults, as well as Max and Liz again.

Jim might have felt that, as the oldest male adult there, he should take charge, but he was aware from his son that changes had taken place in the alien ranks and Michael was now the one whom the majority accepted as leader. He sat back and waited to see what would happen.

To Michael’s relief, it was already clear the group would be breaking up after all. Leading a small group of his friends fleeing for their lives was responsibility enough – he didn’t want to take on a mixed group of emotionally unstable people on the run in convoy. He felt Maria impatiently send him a small mental prod, telling him that he’d better get on with things so they could work out how their own plans would be affected.

He stood up reluctantly and all eyes turned to him. Life-altering decisions had been hurriedly made during what was left of the previous night and the mood was uneasy, everyone delaying the time when they would need to reveal their plans and begin to think about the future.

“I guess this is the point where we all get to decide what we want to do about moving on… Before we start – Rath and Lonnie say they can get new identities for all of us through their…um…mob connections. Kinda like the Government’s witness protection program. However these do not come cheap and we just don’t have the money at the moment… It will take some time to get it, even with our special talents and then we can’t afford them all at once. I guess it will be a case of who needs it first or else we draw lots…”

Rath interrupted.
“ ’Far as gettin’ the moolah – maybe we can help ya out there some. We still got the credit cards from Jesse and the agents. Lonnie and me didn’t destroy them yet, cause they’s still useful. We got ways of getting’ the cash out of them and we is willin’ to donate to the cause, since y’all helped us out… Good to lay a false trail for the Feds, too, if we use ’em all over New York City and other places. Reckon there’s still time yet before anybody comes lookin’ seriously.”

Isobel looked a little sick for a moment, but then recovered herself to comment coldly.

“Jesse had a high limit on his cards and he had some savings, too – they should give us a pretty good chunk of cash…The other agents’ cards will probably add some more to that.”

Michael accepted her suggestion with a nod.

“Ok, that’s gonna take time to set up. Then we have to choose who gets priority…. That’s for later when we know our plans. For now we have to decide what we do next. Ms DeLuca, maybe you would like to be the first to share your ideas?”

Amy rose slowly and stepped over to the fireplace before she turned to face the others. Her eyes went to Jim and he smiled at her encouragingly.

“My plans affect other people, not just me…” She smiled lovingly back at the former sheriff. “Jim and I would like to take the RV on the road for the rest of the summer. Kind of like a honeymoon before the wedding…”

She blushed as Maria screamed and jumped up to hug her and Kyle grabbed his dad in a bear-hug in congratulations. Then they both hugged their future step-parents, too.

When the excitement died down, Jim stood with his arm protectively round Amy.

“I thought that, if it’s okay with you all, Amy and I will move in to Tess’s house in the Fall to raise little Zan. If we can’t find any of Tess’s ownership papers or the bank accounts Nasedo left her, then I’m sure between us all we can find someway to arrange things so nobody connects us with…recent events.”

The idea surprised them all, but everybody agreed it was a good one, so Jim and Amy were content.

Liz was surprisingly the next to step up, her chin lifted in defiant determination.

“I know I’m asking a lot after the way I behaved, but I want to go to Boston, to Harvard, this year if they– ” she risked a doubtful glance at the two dupes – “really can arrange it.”

She sat down again abruptly. Lonnie continued to look bored, while Rath winked lewdly at her, making her blush. He really did look uncannily like Michael. He had none of the other, less physical, qualities that had made her fall for Michael, of course, but if only his behaviour wasn’t so rude and offensive, she might even be desperate enough to– NO! Do not even go there, she told herself. Or at least, whispered a tiny wicked voice at the back of her mind, not yet… She shocked herself at how readily Maria’s suggestion about dating for fun had taken root. Love was just too painful and she needed time out. Maybe not Rath, but other guys could distract her after all… Liz remembered Sean and that other one – what was his name? – who’d hit on her in the state park. There would be others in time… Her spirits lifted a little at the prospect.

Meanwhile, Max had handed Zan over to Amy and stood up to take his turn in surprising everyone. He seemed to have regressed to the quiet, sensitive Max of old, with no trace of his royal, arrogant side showing this morning but he was very direct in what he had to say.

“I’ll understand if you decide it’s too much to ask to be one of the first for a new identity, considering all you’ve done for me already, but in this case you’d be doing it for Zan. I’m going to rent a house by the sea somewhere for the summer and get to know my son. Then I’ll hand him over to Amy and Jim, who have agreed to take over and raise him because I hope go to Boston to study in the Fall. Although, not at Harvard. Obviously.” His ears went red and he carefully didn’t look at Liz when he said this, so missed the quick glance she exchanged with Maria. “I know that some of you will think this is shirking my responsibilities, but it’s the best compromise I could come up with to make sure that he has the best possible advantages of love and protection as he grows up. I’ll continue my education and see him during vacations and any chance I get. My intention is to eventually make a real life for both of us.”

Isobel rose as her brother sat down.

“Max has invited me to join him and my nephew for the summer. After that, I guess I don’t have any plans until Christmas, when I’m going to find Kyle, wherever he is…”

She grinned at him and he smiled back ruefully because, while he knew his decision was right, he had been beating himself up ever since at his stupidity in letting her go. What if she met someone else who she preferred to him? Kyle knew he wouldn’t be getting too much sleep for a while…

He didn’t bother to stand up and face the room. He had no thought or interest yet in where he would go – he only knew that he shouldn’t be around Isobel until she knew what she really wanted to do with her life. He didn’t say the last thought aloud, of course, simply said that he hadn’t made any plans and would just follow the road out and see where it led.

Maria and Michael, sitting close together and listening to all the plans their friends had made, exchanged a glance and instantly knew what the other thought without even using their connection. Michael stood up as the final speaker and on Maria’s behalf started to outline their plans to the others, but didn’t want to reveal the details until he could be sure they would work out okay.

“Maria and I are going back into the mountains. I guess we won’t be the first to get our new identities so staying lost for a while seems like a good idea.”

Maria interrupted eagerly before he could get any further.

“I loved it there – even though we were running from our enemies, it was more like a really cool vacation most of the time. I didn’t even miss the mall as much as I thought I would. Besides, I still have a bet with Spaceboy that I can learn to cook whatever he brings home as his first catch. I’m sooo not going to lose…”

Everyone laughed, breaking the tension, even Amy who was looking decidedly uncertain about things when she realized just what Maria’s plans were. She couldn’t imagine her daughter living in the wilderness for very long without mall access.

Then Michael turned to Kyle.

“If you don’t have any plans, Valenti, why don’t you come along with Maria and me for the ride?”

Maria hurried to back up the invitation when he hesitated.

“Oh, just say yes, Kyle. I know you enjoyed camping in the mountains and we still have two tents…”

She fluttered her eyelashes wickedly at him and he grinned back. It was a great idea. He realized that he wasn’t looking forward to being alone, even though he could do it if he had to, but this offer was one that he didn’t want to refuse. Maria was right; when he wasn’t distracted by alien nightmares, he had really enjoyed the outdoor life and he was comfortable in their friendly company - the bickering between the two was usually a source of amusement, and at least they tried to keep the private side of their relationship discreet.

So he accepted the invitation and Isobel smiled in approval. She would no longer have to worry about him being out in the world on his own and meeting other girls…she remembered the friendly blonde in Denver only too well.

When the conversation turned general again – mostly discussing ways of acquiring the money for the new identities – Max allowed a quietly satisfied grin cross his face… Liz would be in Boston, too, and he had no doubts of his ability to eventually convince her to forgive him and take him back. They were meant to be together and if he had to wait – well, then, he would wait. He wouldn’t let her cut him out of her life this time and he wouldn’t give up.

Liz saw his expression and read his thoughts as easily as if she’d used alien powers. Here we go again, she told herself, but this time, I’ll drive…

Although none of them wanted to stay in this place longer than they had to, there were still final arrangements to be made before they could leave.

The dupes took one of the Special Unit trucks, with a new color and plates, back to their sewer home to strip the stolen credit cards and arrange for the first of the new identities. They could be ready in as little as 24 hours if there was enough cash on the table.

The group had reluctantly agreed, with varying degrees of resentment and disapproval, that Max and Liz should get priority in this. Max got his through little Zan, as everyone wanted to get the innocent baby away from any kind of danger as soon as possible. Liz simply had nowhere else to go and wanted to find a base in Boston in order to explore the area and catch up on her studies before she started college. Only Kyle and Maria would be genuinely sorry to see her leave the group. Isobel didn’t trust her anymore after the way she’d treated Maria and Michael actively loathed her.

Then arrangements had to be made for the group to keep in contact. Isobel, of course, and now also Kyle and Michael would be dream walking the rest of the group on a regular basis.

Then the various trucks and cars had to be assigned and their appearances changed.

Isobel chose the Chevy, considering it her natural right, since she had been the one to take the risk in acquiring it.

Michael and Maria took their pick-up truck, although Maria muttered darkly, well out of her mom’s hearing, about having her own set of wheels as soon as they could steal one she considered cool enough.

Max meekly accepted the van, along with all the baby things that they found in the RV. He didn’t care what he got, just as long as he got some time away from the group. He still felt uncomfortable around Michael, who had made it plain that he wasn’t going to allow Max any authority over him ever again. The days of king and second-in-command were long over.

The RV was going with Jim and Amy, and Maria had a wistful pang of envy when she inspected its luxurious accommodation. The big rig was supremely well equipped for life on the road and her pout at Michael’s point-blank refusal to steal one for her was only softened by Jim’s promise that they could borrow it any time for a future vacation.

This left only the Special Unit truck and Tess’s SUV.

Kyle really wanted that truck, but realized that Liz would rather walk to Boston barefoot than take the vehicle owned by her worst enemy. He was not so happy himself because it held mixed memories of Tess for him. He didn’t rush to claim it, but instead let Liz have the truck, lightly dismissing her attempts to thank him.

Michael noticed his reluctance and came up with a solution.

“Valenti, why don’t you just let Lonnie have the SUV and we’ll find you something you like better on the way out of New York? We have to wait ’til the dupes get back, anyway, so we won’t be leaving here until tomorrow at the earliest…gives you time to think about your options so we know what to look for…”

Kyle casually agreed; he was quietly relieved and grateful for the suggestion. He immediately wandered off to get something cool to drink and fell to thinking about the type of truck that would work well in the wilderness but still look cool.

Maria spent precious time with her mom. They talked over everything that had happened and made optimistic plans for meeting up at Christmas that both knew were probably wishful thinking. After a while, Liz joined them and Amy was very kind, giving her all the news she could about the Parkers back in Roswell and trying her best to comfort the girl whom she considered to be almost another daughter. Liz loved Amy, too, and was happy that she and Jim Valenti had got together at last.

Isobel would have liked to spend time with Kyle, but he seemed to be avoiding her, spending time talking with his dad down by the lake, so she had no option but to entertain her small nephew, which they both greatly enjoyed.

Michael and Max were working on the vehicles, removing the security screen and other FBI 'refinements' fom the RV, although conversation was minimal.

The morning passed, and at lunchtime everyone gathered on the sunny part of the deck or under the sun awning with whatever they could find in the kitchen to eat.

It was getting too hot for coffee, so Liz made lots of iced cherry coke. Michael created sour lemonade for himself and Maria, deliberately teasing her by invoking private memories of their time together in their tiny cove by the lake. He felt Maria shiver with desire and wondered which of them would crack first and drag the other to bed…

After the dishes were cleared away, they waited impatiently for everyone else to disappear again to get some rest.

Michael and Maria’s breathless race to the bedroom ended in a dead heat at the very top of the house where they locked themselves away from the world at last.

As soon as the door closed, Michael had Maria pinned against it, both breathless with want and need. However, he made no further move for the moment, content just to stare at her as her green eyes sparkled back at him, heavy with desire that matched his own.

***It’s been forever since you touched me, Spaceboy***

Her voice was low and husky in his mind, her need for him hotter than the sun that poured though the window. Without thinking he reached out with his mind and closed the drapes, leaving them in a shadowy golden half-darkness that only added to the sultry heat of their desires.

***I don’t know how much longer I could have held out before I grabbed you and dragged you back to my cave…***

A thin film of sweat shone on Maria’s barely clad body and Michael lowered his head to lick her salty skin and quench his sudden thirst to taste her.

The sensation of his tongue sweeping over her throat and down towards her breasts instantly made her nipples swell and stiffen into hard little pebbles which pressed into his chest through the thin fabric of his t-shirt.

First, though, she wanted his kisses and she dragged his head roughly up by his hair and planted her lips on his, needing to feel his mouth plundering hers as his hand was already invading the wet heat between her legs. Her clothes had disappeared without her even being aware of it.

He picked her up abruptly, wrapping her legs around his hips and using one hand to release the hard cock that strained against his jeans. Her small, hot hand reached for the silken steel length of it and he growled in his throat with need for more of her fiery caress.

His hot, demanding mouth had by this time engulfed her right nipple, sucking and licking at it until she thought she’d die in the sweet, painful intensity of the sensation. Just as she had the thought, he switched his attentions to her other breast and the tight, explosive feeling started to build all over again.

She was so ready for him that her juices were escaping against his other hand that was till stroking her tiny bud, bringing her to sensual overload before he’d barely started to pleasure her.

Neither of them could wait any longer for him to be inside her and she contracted her thigh muscles around his hips to help force herself down on him at the same time as as he thrust himself up hard into her.

A few more savage thrusts into her tight, hot center and the shared, white-hot star-filled climax engulfed them, as intensely explosive as anything they’d experienced before.

Still breathless, Michael, with his cock still inside Maria because it felt so good to them both, carried her over to the bed where they fell together onto it’s bouncy softness to wait until they’d recovered enough to start making love all over again, but this time in no desperate heated rush and with the long afternoon before them…

After a long, subdued dinner later that evening, Jim and a tearful Amy said their farewells and departed into the night to head off on their ‘honeymoon’ road trip with thick packets of real and 'alien' money given to them by Michael, their children’s blessing and everyone else’s good wishes. Sometime in the Fall they’d be back to set up home in Tess’s house and hopefully at Christmas the group would come join them to meet up and discuss the future again…

Late the following afternoon, Rath and Lonnie returned with new identities for Max and Liz and cash from the credit cards as promised. There was even a little seed money to spare after sharing out the cash between the remaining members of the group to help them on their way in their new lives. When she’d won enough cash in the casinos of Atlantic City to top up the fund, Isobel would be the next lucky recipient of a new name, life history, social security number and a bank account.

The parting of the group after that was quick, because nobody wanted to linger over painful goodbyes.

After careful hugs for Maria and Michael, exchanging a brief handshake with Kyle and sending a longing look towards at Liz, Max went to wait with Zan for Isobel to say her farewells. They would be heading out to the east coast in a leisurely way, but he was impatient to start.

Isobel was more emotional with everyone than she wanted to be, especially sad at parting from Maria, but tried to hide it. Kyle was cool, making jokes to cover his sadness at parting. Six months was much too long, he’d realized, but she now insisted that it should be the proof of her enduring love. He suspected she was really punishing him for his lack of faith, but could only wait out the endless days until he saw her again at Christmas.

Liz’s departure was quick. She warmly kissed and hugged Maria and Kyle – who both felt guilty watching her go off on her own – ignored Michael who didn’t notice or care and waved a casual goodbye to the others. Then she was gone, a small girl in a big truck, driving into a future she hoped would be happier than her recent past…

Rath and Lonnie were left to do as they wished at the compound, staying on for as long as they dared or leaving it behind after ensuring all traces of the group had been erased.

At last, Michael, Maria and Kyle were on the road themselves. All the camping equipment and supplies had been loaded onto the pick-up and Maria was bouncing with excitement in the passenger seat, already choosing music demonically calculated to annoy both her male companions even before they hit the freeway.

Kyle made himself comfortable in the back of the pick-up and let himself anticipate the upcoming thrill of stealing a set of wheels for himself. Then he remembered a question that he seemed unaccountably to have forgotten.

“Okay, guys, where exactly are we headed – I guess back to some state park again?”

Michael exchanged a look with Maria. Both of them grinned widely at each other in shared anticipation, but it was Michael who answered.

“We’re going to a little place called Watercress Creek…”

The End



*********


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